The apple tree in my backyard is old and expensive to maintain. May I cut it down?
By Rabbi Chaim Hillel Raskin, Rov of Anash in Petach Tikvah.
From the posuk “You shall not destroy its trees,” Chazal derive a biblical prohibition against destroying a fruit tree. Not only may one not cut the tree down, it is even forbidden to cause it to die by destroying its source of water or the like. Trees that don’t bear fruit do not fall under this prohibition.
If there is a legitimate purpose for cutting down the tree, it is halachically permitted, since the Torah’s prohibition applies specifically to “destroying” the tree and not when it is done for a purpose. Some examples of legitimate purposes include: The tree is hurting other trees; it is damaging another field; and, according to some, if the tree attracts birds that dirty the garden below.
Cutting the tree isn’t destructive when the tree is worth more in wood than in fruit, or if the tree is producing so few fruits that it isn’t worth maintaining it.6 Many poskim hold it is likewise permitted for mitzva purposes (e.g. schach, or to make room for a shul).
To hire a gentile to cut down a fruit-bearing tree—in cases that lack legitimate purpose—is prohibited by many poskim, since he is acting on the Jew’s behalf. Some argue that if the gentile is hired as a contractor (kablan), he’s considered to be acting for his own benefit (pay). In practice, this is not relied upon. Still, some contemporary poskim write that in case of need, one should sell the tree to a gentile with payment of money and a contract, and then the gentile may cut down his tree.
Rabbeinu Yehuda HaChossid writes in his testament (tzavaa) that a fruit-bearing tree should not be cut down in any case, even with a legitimate purpose. While some say that the instructions contained in the tzavaa were intended only for his descendants, some poskim write that since he implies that it’s dangerous, everyone must be cautious. Others hold that one needn’t be concerned, and one who wishes should be stringent for himself. In practice, one can rely when needed on the suggestion of poskim that to be cautious, one should hire a gentile and let him cut it down. Of course, this is all provided that it is halachically permissible due to the circumstance.
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