Cutting Down Fruit Trees
We have a canistel (or eggfruit) tree our backyard which we’d like to get rid of. We do not eat its fruit, and the fruit and leaves make a constant mess. I haven’t found anyone who is interested in its fruit – even to take it from us for free. I would like to replace it with an orange tree (we live in Miami). Is there any problem doing so?
The Aish Rabbi Replies
The Torah actually writes specifically that we may not cut down fruit trees (Deuteronomy 20:19-20). From this the Sages learn a more general principle that one may not purposelessly waste or destroy anything of value – food, good utensils, clothes, etc. (see e.g. Talmud Baba Kama 91b, Shabbat 140b).
The Talmud (Baba Kama 91-92) distinguishes that whenever there is a legitimate reason, one may cut down a fruit tree – if it damages other trees or plants, if it’s not productive and not worth its upkeep, if it’s more valuable for the wood, etc. The commentators include in this dispensation when ones needs the space the tree is growing on (Rosh Baba Kama 8:15).
There is, however, a frightening line in the Talmud there which makes people much more hesitant to rely on the above leniency. Rabbi Chanina stated that his son died young as a punishment for his cutting a fig tree before its time. Thus apart from the legal issue of destroying a productive tree, this law appears to carry with it severe Divine retribution.
Most authorities explain that this punishment is incurred only if a person cuts down a fruit tree without legitimate reason, but there is a minority opinion that it is incurred even if the tree is cut with good reason.
As a result, even in cases where a legitimate reason applies, people generally take an extra precaution of first selling the tree to a non-Jew, and having a non-Jew do the actual cutting. (The entire prohibition does not apply to non-Jews.) Your case is also better in that you are cutting one fruit tree to plant another, more productive one. Even with all of this, it’s preferable, if possible, to leave a part of the original tree intact.
(Sources: Rambam Hil’ Melachim 6:8-10, Rosh Baba Kama 8:15, Binayan Tziyon 61, Minchat Yitzchak X 69, Yabia Omer V Y.D. 12:7.)