Dear Rabbi Simon,
As today is Tu Bi-Shevat (New Year for Trees), I have a timely and practical question:
I may have mentioned to you that we are looking to demolish our house and rebuild. The rebuild includes the basement; hence the entire structure and the garden will be razed.
There is a pear tree in our garden and I know there are halachic implications to removing this tree. May I receive your advice on this or a reference to a good source as to how to remove and what to do in general under these circumstances.
TY for your guidance in this area.
You are correct that the Torah (Deut. 21:19; see Talmud BK 91b) forbids felling a fruit-bearing tree and, by extension, other acts of wanton destruction (see Sefer ha-Hinukh mitzvah #530). Nevertheless, many authorities maintain that if the tree occupies space which one requires for his home, the chopping down is not considered “wanton” and the prohibition does not apply.
This is not quite the end of the story, however, as the Talmud (and later tradition) associates misfortune with this act, which is still inherently destructive (as fruit-bearing trees are a blessing and destroying it retains negative associations). For this reason there are some authorities who are reluctant to dispense an outright heter (permissive ruling).
It may be the case that the proscription applies only if you actually cut down the tree yourself. But if you sell the tree (eg for £5.00) to your contractor, and he or his demolition people remove the tree in the course of their work, there is no problem. I would recommend this course of action.
Purely for symbolic reasons—and this is not mentioned in the halakhic literature that I have seen–perhaps you will donate to JNF to plant a tree in Israel by way of compensation.
Happy Tu Bi-Shevat
Rabbi Rashi Simon