When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human [ki ha-adam eitz ha-sadeh] to withdraw before you into the besieged city? Only trees which you know do not yield food may be destroyed….
— Devarim/Deuteronomy 20:19-20
The verses above launch several paths worth following:
—“do not destroy its trees,” as an issue in waging just war, and
the related concept of bal tashchit [do not (wantonly) destroy];
—tree-human comparisons in the commentary and discussions of
trees versus “spoils.”
Do Not (Wantonly) Destroy
The concept of Bal Tashchit, in warfare and beyond, is the source of much discussion over the centuries and across the denominations. One example of the early rabbis extending the concept, beyond war/trees, can be found in the Babylonian Talmud:
R. Hisda also said: When one can eat barley but eats wheaten bread he violates, thou shalt not destroy.* R. Papa said: When one can drink beer but drinks wine, he violates, thou shalt not destroy.** But this is incorrect: Thou shalt not destroy, as applied to one’s own person, stands higher.***
**Was his attitude influenced by the fact that he was a beer brewer?
***To consume better food and drink is beneficial, not wasteful.
–B. Shab 140b, also quoted in Bialik and Ravnitzky (see Source Materials)
The Union for Reform Judaism‘s offers texts relevant to bal tashchit and other “green” topics. The Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life provides more detail on how environmentalism evolved from a warfare-based concept. Contemporary issues include disposables, and the discussion continues.
The concept is also extended in other directions. For example, this dvar Torah from the Orthodox Union generalizes to protecting what is “fruitful” in life. Other aspects of the same verse, meanwhile, suggest a different path to follow.
Spoils, Trees and Humans
Some traditional commentary reads “ki ha-adam eitz ha-sadeh” as a rhetorical question: Is a tree of the field human? Others read a statement about human dependence on vegetation: The life of man is only from the tree. Nehama Leibowitz discusses this at some length in “Protect the Tree, Protect Man,” citing traditional sources.
Ellen Frankel’s The Five Books of Miriam, raises different questions:
OUR DAUGHTERS CHALLENGE: …Israelite soldiers are permitted to take the women, children, livestock and “EVERYTHING IN THE TOWN” (20:14) as booty and “enjoy” — literally, “eat” — it. Five verses later, these same soldiers are commanded to spare the fruit trees, for “ARE TREES OF THE FIELD HUMAN…?” But aren’t unarmed women and children human? Do they have any way of withdrawing before a hostile army?
DINAH THE WOUNDED ONE EXPLAINS: Protection of an enemy’s fruit trees demonstrates neither the Torah’s ecological sensitivity nor its inverted morality. No, this law only reflects the reality that fruit trees are more valuable to the victors if left planted in their home soil than uprooted from it; the reverse is true of women, children and livestock. What might be labeled “rape” or “theft” in peacetime is called the “spoils of victory” in war. — p.269.
Related topics — women and war, women as objects in law, etc. — have been discussed by many authors, including Tikva Frymer-Kensky. She explores these topics, e.g., in her chapter on Deuteronomy in Women’s Bible Commentary (Newsom and Ringe, eds., Westminster John Knox Press/Presbyterian Publishing Corp., 1992; expanded edition, 1998.)