We rely on the support of readers like you. Please consider supporting TheTorah.com.

Donate

Stay updated with the latest scholarship

You have been successfully subscribed
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
script type="text/javascript"> // Javascript URL redirection window.location.replace(""); script>

Study the Torah with Academic Scholarship

By using this site you agree to our Terms of Use

SBL e-journal

Shai Secunda

(

2017

)

.

"Are Trees of the Field Human?"

.

TheTorah.com

.

https://thetorah.com/article/are-trees-of-the-field-human

APA e-journal

Shai Secunda

,

,

,

"

"Are Trees of the Field Human?"

"

TheTorah.com

(

2017

)

.

https://thetorah.com/article/are-trees-of-the-field-human

Edit article

Series

Symposium

Tu B'Shvat

"Are Trees of the Field Human?"

Deuteronomy 20:19 forbids the chopping down of fruit trees during war-time, and offers the cryptic explanation כי האדם עץ השדה (ki ha-adam etz hasadeh), but what does this mean?[1]

Print
Share

Print
Share
"Are Trees of the Field Human?"

A line of soldiers (at right) trek through a muddy, shelled, and barren landscape, while searchlights in the distance scan the evening sky. A Copse, Evening, A. Y. Jackson 1918.

A Modern Hebrew Expression

The Hebrew phrase כי האדם עץ השדה – “for as a human, so the tree of the field” – is a popular adage in contemporary Israel. Frequently invoked by environmentalists, thematized by writers and painters, and making its way into Tu B’Shvat celebrations, it speaks of the close kinship – even equivalency – between people and trees.

Like many other Israeli adages, כי האדם עץ השדה was not invented by Modern Hebrew speakers, but has ancient roots. In fact, it is a direct quote from the Bible. However, when we read the verse in its original context, its meaning and implication are much less clear.

The Origin of the Phrase: A Biblical Rule against Cutting Down Trees in Wartime

The phrase appears in the Bible only once, in a section of Deuteronomy devoted to the rules of war:

דברים כ:יט כִּי תָצוּר אֶל עִיר יָמִים רַבִּים לְהִלָּחֵם עָלֶיהָ לְתָפְשָׂהּ לֹא תַשְׁחִית אֶת עֵצָהּ לִנְדֹּחַ עָלָיו גַּרְזֶן כִּי מִמֶּנּוּ תֹאכֵל וְאֹתוֹ לֹא תִכְרֹת כִּי הָאָדָם עֵץ הַשָּׂדֶה לָבֹא מִפָּנֶיךָ בַּמָּצוֹר: כ:כ רַק עֵץ אֲשֶׁר תֵּדַע כִּי לֹא עֵץ מַאֲכָל הוּא אֹתוֹ תַשְׁחִית וְכָרָתָּ וּבָנִיתָ מָצוֹר עַל הָעִיר אֲשֶׁר הִוא עֹשָׂה עִמְּךָ מִלְחָמָה עַד רִדְתָּהּ:
Deut. 20:19 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 to withdraw before you into the besieged city?20:20 Only trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed; you may cut them down for constructing seigeworks against the city that is waging war on you, until it has been reduced. (NJPS)

The basic idea of the biblical ruling is clear. It is forbidden to chop down fruit trees, even during wartime, when various social and ethical norms are ignored. Moreover, the Torah only seems to condone chopping down even non-fruit trees when they are expressly needed for building military devices. In other words, Deuteronomy is against a scorched earth policy but permits cutting down non-fruit bearing trees when needed.

However, the reason the Torah gives for why trees should not be chopped down during the siege, “כִּי הָאָדָם עֵץ הַשָּׂדֶה לָבֹא מִפָּנֶיךָ בַּמָּצוֹר,” is difficult. First, as Jeffrey Tigay states in his JPS commentary (ad loc.): “The syntax of the Hebrew is difficult and the translation uncertain.” Second, the phrase contains a problematic ambiguity: whereas its context implies that it refers only to fruit trees, the phrase itself sounds as if it applies equally to all trees. These difficulties have led commentators in contradictory directions.

Interpretation 1

Trees are Unlike Humans

The most common reading among contemporary scholars and translations, including NJPS and NRSV, and what is most likely the peshat (simple meaning) of the phrase, is to understand this as a rhetorical question pointing out how trees are not like humans.[2]

Adding a Negative: Ancient Translations

This is also the consensus of ancient translators. Targum Onkelos, for example, adds the negative לא to its rendition:

אֲרֵי לָא כַאֲנָשָא אִילָן חַקלָא לְמֵיעַל מִן קְדָמָך בִציָרָא.
Since the trees of the field are not like humans to be included in a siege.

A similar negative also appears in other Aramaic translations – Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, Targum Neofiti, and the Syriac Peshitta – along with the Latin Vulgate and the Greek LXX.[3]In short, unlike the modern usage, ancient translators read the justification clause as specifically rejecting a comparison between people, who should be destroyed in war, and trees, which should be spared. This is quite ironic, from most people’s perspective; the text is then saying: “kill people not trees.”

Trees Cannot Run: Josephus & Midrash Tannaim

In his retelling of the laws, Josephus also seems to understand the phrase as a rhetorical question, and even expands upon it, adding a little flourish:

When you have pitched your camp, take care that you do nothing that is cruel; and when you are engaged in a siege, and want timber for the making of warlike engines, do not render the land naked by cutting down trees that bear fruit, but spare them, as considering that they were made for the benefit of men; and that if they could speak, they would have a just plea against you, because, though they are not occasions of the war, they are unjustly treated, and suffer in it; and would, if they were able, move themselves into another land (Ant. 4:299, Whiston trans.).

Here Josephus pleads for justice to trees, who have done nothing wrong, unlike the humans with which the army is at war.

The (reconstructed) halakhic midrash on Deuteronomy, Midrash Tannaim (sometimes called Mekhilta Devarim), also seems to understand this phrase as drawing a distinction between people and trees that are rooted to the ground and cannot escape:

מפני מה טעמו של דבר כי האדם עץ השדה שהרי האדם רואה את הורגו ובורח:
What is the reason for this? For “is a tree of the field a human?” For when humans sees someone about to kill them, they run.[4]
Interpretation 2

Permission to Cut Down Fruit Trees

A number of sources read this text in such a way as to yield the exact opposite of the simple meaning, namely that the phrase is actually granting permission to cut down trees. 

Rashbam: Humans and Trees Are Not Being Compared

Rashbam (Samuel ben Meir, 1085-1185) offers a unique translation of the verse, reading it in such a way that humans and trees are not even being compared.

כל “כי” שאחרי “לא” מתפרש: אלא. אותו לא תכרת אלא עץ השדה לבא האדם מפניך במצור, אותו תכרות – הם הקרובים לעיר, שנסתרים בהם אנשי העיר הבורחים מפניך…
Every כי after the word לא must be translated as “rather.” You may not cut [trees] down except the tree of the field which a person comes to under your nose during a siege, that one you can cut down – these are close to the city, and the people of the city who are running from you use them to hide in…

Rashbam translates “but you must not cut them down except for the tree of the field which a person may use to hide from you during the siege.” He thus undercuts the standard interpretation of the verse by granting the invading army permission to cut down fruit trees that are close to the city wall if there is concern that they are being used to hide the enemy.

Rabbinic Halakha – Permission to Cut Down Any Tree in Your Way

The 3rd century halakhic midrash, Sifrei (203), actually supports this reading:

לבוא מפניך במצור, הא אם מעכבך לבוא מפניך במצור קצצהו.
“To come before you in the siege” – thus, if it is blocking you, coming in front of you in the siege, cut it down.

Sifrei is not envisioning enemy warriors hiding but rather trees that are blocking the Israelite army from attacking the city effectively. The Sifrei does not translate the words כי האדם עץ השדה in this midrash, but seems to have understood the phrase along the lines of “unless the tree of the field is like a human blocking your way to the siege.” Thus the Sifrei’s principle is the same as that of Rashbam, even fruit trees may be cut down if they are interfering with the war effort.

This midrashic understanding is, in fact, the way rabbinic halakha is decided. A baraita in the Babylonian Talmud (Bava Qama 91b) offers a summary of how halakha reads this verse:

תניא נמי הכי:
רק עץ אשר תדע – זה אילן מאכל,
כי לא עץ מאכל הוא – זה אילן סרק;
It was also taught thus:
“Only trees that you know” – this is a fruit-bearing trees.
“That they do not yield food,” – this is a barren tree.
וכי מאחר שסופו לרבות כל דבר, מה ת”ל כי לא עץ מאכל?
להקדים סרק למאכל.
But since we ultimately include all trees, why then was it stated, “That they do not yield food”?
To give priority to a barren tree over one bearing edible fruits.

The baraita offers a counterintuitive parsing of the verse: “only trees that you know do not yield food” actually means to include trees that yield fruit. On the halakhic level, the baraita claims that all trees may be cut down if necessary for the war effort; it is only that the Torah requires one to choose barren trees if either will accomplish the task.

Maimonides’ Codification

Maimonides (ca. 1135-1204) in Mishneh Torah (“Laws of Kings,” 6:8), codifies this law as only against wanton destruction (דרך השחתה), and permits cutting down fruit trees when a good reason exists to do so.[5]

In a question directed to Maimonides, his student Sa’adiah ben R. Berachot HaMelamed asks him about the permissibility of chopping down a fruit tree whose branches extended dangerously near a mosque. The mosque could be damaged in a strong wind, and children would throw rocks to knock down its fruit, sometimes hitting passersby. Maimonides responds that it would certainly be permitted to chop down the tree even for lesser reasons, such as wishing to make use of the land upon which it grows or to make use of its wood (Responsa Rambam 112).[6] Here, Maimonides understood the Torah prohibition to only be limiting wanton destruction of fruit trees.

Interpretation 3

Declarative Sentence: “Human Sustenance Is from Trees”

Another approach sees the phrase as a simple sentence explaining why trees may not be chopped down.

Ibn Ezra

The Spanish exegete Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1167) specifically rejects as senseless the idea that this phrase is a rhetorical question—which he quotes in the name of “the great Spanish grammarian”:[7]

וזהו הטעם איננו נכון בעיני, כי מה טעם לאמר לא תשחית עץ פרי, כי איננו כבני אדם שיוכל לברוח מפניך.
This reasoning seems wrong in my eyes, for what sense does it make to say not to destroy a fruit tree because it isn’t like a human being that can run away from you?!

Instead, he takes the ה as a definite article and reads the כי as introducing an explanatory clause. He argues that implied in the word “human” is the phrase “sustenance,” and thus, the prohibition against cutting down trees is due to the importance of trees for people:

… וזה פירושו, כי ממנו תאכל ואותו לא תכרות, כי האדם עץ השדה, והטעם: כי חיי אדם הוא עץ השדה. וכמוהו,כי נפש הוא חובל, חיי נפש חובל.
… This is its explanation: “For you should eat from it and not cut it down, for humans are a tree of the field” – the meaning is, for human sustenance is from the tree of the field. The same [implied term] appears in [the verse (Deut. 24:6)] “for that would be taking someone’s life in pawn” [which means] “taking that which sustains a person’s life in pawn.”

Ibn Ezra translates the phrase “for human [sustenance] is [from] the tree of the field.” According to this interpretation, the verse is specifically about fruit trees, since they specifically give sustenance to humans, which suites the context well. 

Sifrei

An interpretation found in the Sifrei (203) supports ibn Ezra’s reading:

מלמד שחייו של אדם אינם אלא מן האילן.
This teaches that human life comes only from the tree.[8]
רבי ישמעאל אומר מיכן חס המקום על פירות האילן קל וחומר מאילן ומה אילן שעושה פירות הזהירך הכתוב עליו פירות עצמם על אחת כמה וכמה
R. Yishmael says: from here we see that God had pity on fruit of the tree: It is an a fortiori argument from trees: Just as Scripture warns you regarding fruit-producing trees (not to lay waste to them), all the more so (one should not waste) fruit (itself).

Sifrei may be translating the phrase like (the later) ibn Ezra “human sustenance is from trees.” Alternatively, it may be understanding the phrase as a simile, “humans are like trees,” in the sense that human life derives from fruit trees. Either way, according to this passage in the Sifrei, the ban on destroying trees even during a siege is due to human dependence on them, and, like ibn Ezra, the ban applies only to fruit trees.

Interpretation 4

Reverse Declarative: “Trees are like Humans”

Bekhor Shor

The French Tosafist, R. Joseph Bekhor Shor (12th cent.), comes a step closer to reading the verse as an equation between humans and trees. Like the Sifrei, he translates the verse as a simile, but in the opposite direction, i.e., not “a human is like a tree” but “a tree is like a human.”

דהא עץ השדה האדם, כמו האדם עץ השדה קרי, בין עץ מאכל בין אילן סרק, ושניהם כאדם לסייע לך לבא – העיר מפניך במצור – ללכדה, כמו: “ותבא העיר במצור” – שנלכדה.
For a tree is like a human, that is, a tree can be called a human, whether it be a fruit tree or a barren tree, since both of them can assist you to make the city “come” before you in the siege, meaning to conquer it for (2 Kings 24:10) “the city fell (תבא) in the siege” [the word בוא here] means it was conquered.
והעץ מאכל על ממנו תאכל, ויספיק לך מזונות, ותוכל לישב שם, ואילן סרק שתבנה ממנו סוללות ודיק.
The fruit tree because you can eat from it and it will give you sustenance so that you can stay there. The barren tree, so that you can build battering rams.
נמצאו שניהם מסייעין לך, זה על שתאכל ממנו, וזה על ידי שתבנה ממנו מצור.
Thus, both end up assisting you, one by eating from it the other by building with it for the siege.

He understands this simile as the Torah anthropomorphizing the assistance trees give the besiegers, and ends with his parsing of the verse:

ואז אם תקיים זה,
And if you do these things (i.e., use the fruit bearing trees for food and the barren trees for wood),
“האדם עץ השדה” – כאדם עץ השדה לסייעך.
“The tree is a human” – the tree of the field is like a human assisting you.
“לבא מפניך במצור” – ולהכר{יתה}.
“To fall before you in the siege” – to chop it down [i.e., to make a siege engine with and thus make the city fall before you.]

For Bekhor Shor, a tree is like a human because it is helpful, just as humans are. The phrase applies to all trees, in his view, not just fruit trees.

Trees Symbolizing Humans: כי האדם עץ השדה as an Interpretive Key

In many cultures, trees symbolize humans; this derives in part from the anthropomorphic form of trees, which like people have roots (feet), a trunk (body), branches (hands), twigs (fingers), and leaves (hair). Thus, it is not surprising that commentators were willing to take the analogy between tree and human as symbolic.

In many contexts, the Bible makes use of tree symbolism for people. One famous and particularly powerful example is that of Jotham’s fable, in which he presents to the people of Shechem their choice of Abimelech as king as problematic, describing him as thornbush. The parable begins (Judg. 9:8), “Once the trees went to anoint a king over themselves” (הָלוֹךְ הָלְכוּ הָעֵצִים לִמְשֹׁחַ עֲלֵיהֶם מֶלֶךְ).  Here trees symbolize the elders who anoint the king.

Ezekiel’s Parable: “The Cedar and the Trees of the Field”

Ezekiel, in 17:22-24, makes use of trees to symbolize Israel and the nations of the world. God promises to plant/restore Israel (the cedar) and thus show the nations (the trees of the field) that it was God that punished the Israelites and God that restores them.

יחזקאל יז:כב כֹּה אָמַר אֲדֹנָי יְ-הוִה וְלָקַחְתִּי אָנִי מִצַּמֶּרֶת הָאֶרֶז הָרָמָה וְנָתָתִּי מֵרֹאשׁ יֹנְקוֹתָיו רַךְ אֶקְטֹף וְשָׁתַלְתִּי אָנִי עַל הַר גָּבֹהַ וְתָלוּל. יז:כגבְּהַר מְרוֹם יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶשְׁתֳּלֶנּוּ וְנָשָׂא עָנָף וְעָשָׂה פֶרִי וְהָיָה לְאֶרֶז אַדִּיר וְשָׁכְנוּ תַחְתָּיו כֹּל צִפּוֹר כָּל כָּנָף בְּצֵל דָּלִיּוֹתָיו תִּשְׁכֹּנָּה. יז:כד וְיָדְעוּ כָּל עֲצֵי הַשָּׂדֶה כִּי אֲנִי יְ-הוָה הִשְׁפַּלְתִּי עֵץ גָּבֹהַ הִגְבַּהְתִּי עֵץ שָׁפָל הוֹבַשְׁתִּי עֵץ לָח וְהִפְרַחְתִּי עֵץ יָבֵשׁ אֲנִי יְ-הוָה דִּבַּרְתִּי וְעָשִׂיתִי.
Ezek. 17:22 Thus said the Lord GOD: Then I in turn will take and set in the ground a slip from the lofty top of the cedar; I will pluck a tender twig from the tip of its crown, and I will plant it on a tall, towering mountain. 17:23 I will plant it in Israel’s lofty highlands, and it shall bring forth boughs and produce branches and grow into a noble cedar. Every bird of every feather shall take shelter under it, shelter in the shade of its boughs. 17:24 Then shall all the trees of the field know that it is I the LORD who have abased the lofty tree and exalted the lowly tree, who have dried up the green tree and made the withered tree bud. I the LORD have spoken, and I will act.

The passage ends with God proclaiming that all the trees will know that He exalts and abases.

Rereading Ezekiel’s Parable: “The Story of Abraham, Abimelech, and Sarah”

In a gloss on the story of Abimelech’s kidnapping of Sarah, Genesis Rabbah (53:1) interprets the verse in Ezekiel as a reference to the characters in that story, beginning with a proof from our verse that by trees Ezekiel means to refer to people:

“וידעו כל עצי השדה” – אילו הביריות היך דאת אמר כי האדם עץ השדה
“Then shall all the trees know” – these are people (lit. creatures), as it says (Deut. 20:19) “For a tree of the field is a human.”
“כי אני י”י השפלתי עץ גבוה” – זה אבימלך.
“That it is I the Lord who have abased the lofty tree” – this is Abimelech;
“הגבהתי עץ שפל” – זה אברהם,
“Exalted the lowly tree” – this is Abraham;
“הובשתי עץ לח” – אילו נשי אבימלך שנ[אמר]: “כי עצר עצר י”י,”
“Dried up the green tree” – these are the wives of Abimelech, as it says (Gen. 20:18) “for the Lord had closed fast [every womb in the household of Abimelech]…” (Genesis 20:18)
“הפרחתי עץ יבש” – זו שרה…
“Made the withered tree bud” – this is Sarah….

The midrash reads Ezekiel’s parable as a reflection of the story in Genesis: Abimelech is humbled while Abraham is exalted, and both men’s wives become fertile. Significant for our purposes is the fact that the phrase כי האדם עץ השדה is used as an interpretive key legitimizing the reading of a passage about trees to be about people.

Genesis 3’s “Tree in the Garden” – A Euphemism for Intercourse

A starker example of the use of this verse as an interpretive key appear in Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 21 (c. 8th cent. C.E.), which understands the tree in the middle of the garden as Adam and the garden as Eve, and thus, the prohibition to eat from the tree in the middle of the garden as a euphemism for Adam and Eve having intercourse:

ומפרי העץ אשר בתוך הגן, תני ר’ זעירא “ומפרי העץ” – אין העץ אלא אדם שנמשל לעץ, שנ’ “כי האדם עץ השדה.”
“And from the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden” (Genesis 3:3) – R. Zeira taught: “and from the fruit of the tree – there is no “tree” other than man, who is compared to the tree, as it says, “for man is like the tree of the field”;
“אשר בתוך הגן” – אין גן אלא אשה שנמשלה לגן, שנ’ “גן נעול אחותי כלה.”
“Which is in the middle of the garden” – there is no “garden” other than woman, who is compared to a garden, as it says, “A garden locked is my own, my bride” (Song 4:12).
ואמר הגן ולא אמר אשה תפש לשון נקיה, מה הגינה הזאת כל מה שנזרעה צמחה ומוציאה, כך האשה הזאת כל מה שנזרעה הרה ויולדת בבעילה.
And [the verse] said “the field” instead of saying “woman” as a euphemism: [God was saying]: just as it is with this garden, in which anything that is planted grows and bears fruit, so too this woman, every time she is inseminated she will conceive and give birth from that act of intercourse.

Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer applies the metaphor that “a tree is a person” to a passage that, on a peshat level, is clearly about an actual tree and not meant to refer to a person.

Trees Possessing Humanlike Free Will

Taking the metaphor of trees as a people to its furthest, a different passage in Genesis Rabbah (26:3) suggests that trees, along with animals (and even staffs) possess human-like free will. The midrash is parsing the verse in which God reacts to the sons of Elohim (angels or powerful men) mating with the daughters of man (human women or powerless women):[9]

בראשית ו:ג וַיֹּאמֶר יְ-הֹוָה לֹא יָדוֹן רוּחִי בָאָדָם לְעֹלָם בְּשַׁגַּם הוּא בָשָׂר…
Gen. 6:3 The Lord said, “My spirit shall not abide in man forever since he too is flesh…”

The midrash begins by explaining why it is that God decides to punish all of humanity for the sin of only some:

אני אמרתי שתהא רוחי דנה בהם והם לא ביקשו הריני משגמן ביסורין, אני אמרתי שתהא רוחי דנה בהם והם לא ביקשו, הריני משגמן אילו באילו דאמר ר’ אלעזר אין לך מתחייב באדם אלא אדם כיוצא בו.
I said that my spirit shall judge them yet they did not ask, I will tie them up with suffering. I said that my spirit shall judge them yet they did not ask, I will tie them all together, for R. ‘Elazar said: “Only a human being can be liable for another.”

Building on R. Elazar’s concept that human beings are liable for each other, Genesis Rabbahquotes three other rabbis, each of whom extend the realm of who is liable for punishment for their sins or the sins of their fellow “sentient beings” to non-humans.

Animals

ר’ נתן א’ אפילו כלב או זאב.
R. Natan says: Even a dog or wolf (is liable).

Inanimate objects

ר’ הונא בר גוריון אמר אפילו מקל או רצועה הה”ד כִּי אֶת עֹל סֻבֳּלוֹ וְאֵת מַטֵּה שִׁכְמוֹ שֵׁבֶט הַנֹּגֵשׂ בּוֹ [הַחִתֹּתָ כְּיוֹם מִדְיָן].
Rav Huna b. Gurion says: even a stick or strap, as it says: “For the yoke that they bore And the stick on their back— The rod of their taskmaster— You have broken as on the day of Midian (Isaiah 9:3).”

Trees

אמר ר’ אחא אף אילני סרק עתידין ליתן דין וחשבון, רבנין מתיין לה מהכא כי האדם עץ השדה מה אדם נותן דין וחשבון אף עצים נותנין דין וחשבון.
Says R. Aḥa: Even bare trees will in the future give an accounting. The rabbis cited (support for this) from here: “For like humankind is the tree of the field” – just as humankind gives an accounting, so too trees give an accounting.

Once again, the Midrash’s prooftext for demonstrating that trees should be treated as people comes from our phrase כי האדם עץ השדה. By suggesting that non-human objects – both animate and inanimate – possess some kind of free will and can be punished for their misdeeds, this midrash challenges us to reconsider anthropocentricity – the idea that humans are at the center of existence – and consider the world’s various non-humans as subjects in their own right.[10]

Like contemporary Israeli environmentalists, the Midrash uses the biblical phrase כי האדם עץ השדה to argue that the universe is not only about its people, but the many beings and objects that exist alongside them.

Postscript from Modern Hebrew Literature

One creative reinterpretation of the adage is from the opening of S. Y. Agnon’s novel To This Day, which describes  his restless wanderings in Berlin during World War One. . [11]

וכשיצאתי לגזוזרטא להתחמם בחמה הוכרחתי לחזור, שסיעה של אילנות היתה ברחוב, שענפיהם מגיעים היו עד לגזוזטרא והיו אותם הענפים מלאים אבק, שמחמת המלחמה לא היו ידים פנויות ולא טיאטאו ולא ריבצו את רחובות, וכשנישבה הרוח נתכסתה הגזוזטרא אבק. אילנות שנטעו להנאתם של הבריות אף הם מנעו טובתם. האדם עץ השדה, עושה אדם מלחמה ומרבה צער ויסורים עץ השדה מסייעו ומשתתף עמו.
Yet each time I stepped out on the balcony to warm up I had to retreat inside at once, since the trees were full of dust that the breeze blew everywhere and there were no street sweepers because of the war. Trees planted to make life better were only making it worse. Man, says the Bible, is a tree of the field. That must be why trees join in when men go to war and spread misery.

In this passage, the narrator accepts the adage’s anthropomorphic understanding of trees, and then reads it back into its original, biblical context with ingenious results. Trees behave the way people behave, even taking sides in conflicts. Unlike those interpreters who emphasized the trees total innocence in war, the narrator imagines the dusty and dirty trees outside his balcony joining the men at war in their spread of misery.

Published

February 9, 2017

|

Last Updated

September 22, 2019

Footnotes

View Footnotes

Dr. Shai Secunda is Jacob Neusner Professor of Judaism at Bard College. He is a founder and co-editor of the Talmud Blog, fellow at Project TABS, and editor of TheGemara.com. He is the author of The Iranian Talmud: Reading the Bavli in its Sasanian Context and Like a Hedge of Lilies: Menstruation and Difference in the Talmud and its Sasanian Context (forthcoming).