by R. Daniel Mann
Question: We want to plant a fruit tree in our yard, but if we can work it out, we will expand our house and will need to uproot the tree. Is it alright to plant it in these circumstances?
Answer: The Torah forbids cutting down fruit trees (Devarim 20:19). This is the strictest application of the concept not to be destructive (see Rambam, Melachim 6:8). The gemara and poskim identify “non-destructive” cases where it is permitted to cut them down.
The gemara grants permission in the following cases: 1. The tree no longer produces a kav (a relatively small amount) of fruit (Bava Kama 91b-92a). 2. It is worth more for wood than for fruit (see Rashi, ad loc.). 3. It is significantly damaging a more valuable tree (see Tosafot ad loc.). 4. It is damaging another’s property (Bava Batra 26a).
The Rosh (Bava Kama 8:15) learns from the above that one may cut down a tree if needed to use its location, which the Taz (Yoreh Deah 116:6) applies to building a home. Most poskim say this includes expanding a home, assuming the addition is more valuable than the tree (see Yabia Omer V, YD 12).
Your case might seem to be clearly fine. If it will be permitted to cut down the tree, but you want to plant it because of the good chance you will not build, why shouldn’t you? One possible issue is that not all agree how far to extend the Talmudic leniencies (see discussion, ibid.). Therefore, there is reason to avoid a situation that might be forbidden. However, leniency regarding house expansion is accepted enough for this not to be a major impediment.
The more intriguing hesitation is based on the possibility that the prohibition of cutting down fruit trees extends beyond halachic norms. Regarding the need-based leniencies (#2-#4 above), one can ask whether in cases of net gain, the cutting down is permitted because it is not considered a destructive act at all (see Rambam Melachim 6:8), as is correct regarding other cases of bal tashchit. The alternative is that cutting down a fruit tree is always regrettable, just that the Torah allowed it when “necessary.” If so, there is reason to avoid the situation wherein justified leniency is necessary. (Parallel concepts include bitul issur l’chatchila and mechaven melachto b’moed – further analysis is beyond our scope.)
The latter approach is strengthened by the opinions (see discussion in Etz Hasadeh 10:1) that even when one is halachically permitted to cut down a tree, it can cause bad fortune (see Pesachim 50b) or even danger (see Bava Kama 91b). This prompted some poskim to say that even when there is a serious need to cut down the tree, one would be wise to have a non-Jew, to whom the prohibition does not apply, do it (see Shut Chatam Sofer, YD 102). Therefore, even if, as seems to be the case, we do not have the basis to prohibit setting up a situation where one might have valid cause to cut down the tree, we cannot say confidently that it is wise to do so.
It will not help to cut down the tree before it has the “minimum amount” of fruit for the prohibition, because that amount is a sign of lack of long-time feasibility for old trees (see Rambam, ibid. 9), not for young trees that are expected to be fruitful. However, there are further grounds for leniency based on the opinions that the prohibition does not apply to a tree planted with intention to cut it down (see Etz Hasadeh 8:7).
An idea to mitigate the situation is to plant the tree in a way that it can be effectively transplanted, as many permit or consider it an added reason for leniency (She’eilat Yaavetz I:78). If you do so in a non-permeable encasing, it might be considered not planted, so that perhaps moving it will be easier and even without halachic consequence (Chazon Ish, Dinei Orla 32) Consider, though, that transferring it to the ground may restart the years of orla (ibid.).
In summary, assuming the lack of serious need to plant the tree right away, there is logic to wait for more clarity whether you will build. However, we would not say it is forbidden to plant the tree; we also suggested mitigating steps.
לעילוי נשמת יואל אפרים בן אברהם עוזיאל זלצמן ז”ל