If Orthodox Jews Take Fruit Trees That Seriously, Be Glad They Didn’t Read the Bible Verses Right Before It

We always talk about religious beliefs that cause harm, but some beliefs are just downright silly. They don’t hurt anybody, but the lengths people go to in order to adhere to the rules is ridiculous.

Such is the case with certain trees in Brooklyn:

The staircase was specially built to avoid the fruit tree. (Benjamin Norman – The New York Times)

Sheya Wieder owned a small old house on a large lot in Borough Park, Brooklyn, until about six years ago, he said, when he decided it was time to knock it down and build an upgrade. He was all set to go when it occurred to him that the big, shady tree, standing tall and proud right where his new stoop would go, might cause a problem

“The rabbis wouldn’t let me take it down,” Mr. Wieder said. “They told me if there is any possibility, even if it costs you money, you should work around it.”

So he did.

“It cost me over $100,000 to save it,” Mr. Wieder said.

In certain Orthodox Jewish communities, from Borough Park to Monsey, N.Y., rabbis say, there is a strong aversion to chopping down fruit trees, which results from some combination of biblical verses, Jewish law and mystical documents that prohibit destroying them wantonly…

The belief stems from Deuteronomy 20:19:

When you lay siege to a city for a long time, fighting against it to capture it, do not destroy its trees by putting an ax to them, because you can eat their fruit. Do not cut them down. Are the trees people, that you should besiege them?

Of all the passages to take seriously, that’s the one they’re focusing on?

Can we at least admit there’s no war going on during which cities are being sieged and fruit trees must be spared? Wouldn’t that fact nullify the rule?

And if they’re taking Deuteronomy 20 that literally, we’re all screwed. Because this is what it says just a few lines before that in Deuteronomy 20:10-11:

When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you.

Oh shit! We’re all about to be enslaved by Orthodox Jews! BE AFRAID!

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Drakk

    “When you lay siege to a city for a long time,”

    Which they’re not doing.

    “fighting against it to capture it,”

    Likewise.

    “do not destroy its trees
    by putting an ax to them,”

    Nothing about chainsaws.

    THREE loopholes here. No excuses.

  • Barbara

    Pretty silly, huh? But that’s religious beliefs for you. And thank goodness for secular laws or else these religious people would try to fully live by the Bible, with all its cruelty.

  • george.w

    “Are the trees people, that you should besiege them?”

    No, wait. I kinda like this part. As a general principle.

    • Ibis3

       Me too. Except, maybe the part about besieging people…

    • Drakk

       Be careful, you might get Jews saying the old testament predicts climate change…

  • http://www.laughinginpurgatory.com/ Andrew Hall

    When suffering form a delusional belief a person may give a fruit tree more respect than a human being.

    • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

      I think Nature could certainly do with humans showing a bit more respect…

  • http://www.zazzle.com/atheist_tees The Godless Monster

    “If Orthodox Jews Take Fruit Trees That Seriously, Be Glad They Didn’t Read the Bible Verses Right Before It”

    They did, and they took that seriously, too.

  • Good and Godless

    They did pay attention to dueteronomy 20:10-11 and apply that to the fullest extent of the law allows, and then some.   Shalom Rubashin had no problem stooping closer to slavery than the law would allow.

  • http://www.summerseale.com/ Summer Seale

    Actually, that’s not such a bad rule. I’m sorta in favor of it – if only it’ll allow me to move the tree instead of cutting it down. That’s fine with me. Granted, it’s reverence for the wrong reason perhaps, but it’s still reverence for trees and I really can sorta support that.

    There is *so* much more we can criticize them for, believe me. Let’s start with their *insanely* disgusting and insulting attitude towards women.

    • Drew

      “We always talk about religious beliefs that cause harm, but some beliefs are just downright silly. They don’t hurt anybody, but the lengths people go to in order to adhere to the rules is ridiculous.”

      Of course their views on women are disgusting, and we should never let up on that line of criticism. At the same time, it’s worthwhile to consider some of the less publicized, yet extremely bizarre, consequences of religious beliefs.

      • http://www.summerseale.com/ Summer Seale

        That’s actually a very good point.

        I still think there are other bizarre ones to discuss though. I mean, when you get down to it…saving trees – even for a stupid religious reason – isn’t such a bad thing overall. If Christians went around saving trees for the same reason, I wouldn’t go around criticizing them for it. It just looks a bit out of place. =)

    • Stev84

      Good luck digging out that tree with its roots intact…

  • http://www.summerseale.com/ Summer Seale

    BTW, just to clarify: Ultra Orthodox Judaism is based on “Fence laws”. Meaning: it doesn’t have to say not to do something explicitly in the bible. IE: Don’t cut down all fruit trees. It just has to say don’t cut down fruit trees in these sorts of circumstances.

    And then, in their complete and utter *idiocy*, they will make what are called “Fence Laws” which apply to all circumstances, so that they know that they are not breaking that law under *any* circumstances.

    So “don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk” becomes “don’t eat meat and cheese together”, so that they are certain that they will never break that core law no matter what.

    Yes, that’s the entire basis of all those stupid laws of Ultra Orthodox Judaism. It’s completely, utterly, stupid – even if you believe in the original mythology of the bible as being real, it’s taking it to a whole fucking new level of insanity.

    So that’s why you get rulings such as this where the original bible verse has nothing to do with the reality of the situation we see today. But because they want to make sure they never, ever, violate any rules inside of the torah, they forbid the cutting down of *all* fruit trees no matter what.

    And they forbid the eating of *all* meat and dairy, no matter what.

    And they forbid the use of electricity on shabbat, no matter what.

    It’s insane, it’s stupid, and that’s really what we should be criticizing. The whole “keep the tree alive thing” – again…I can be on board with that.

    Sorry, just figured I’d give an explanation as to why it’s the way it is. I know most people don’t have any clue about Judaism apart from what they’ve seen in a few movies, or that eating pork isn’t kosher outside of sweet and sour pork in New York City.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Paul-Reed/692599362 Paul Reed

       Which makes you wonder (or should make them wonder): If God actually did want to them to follow a set of rules, why not make them clear enough that the Jews don’t have to err on the side of caution?
      People don’t have to trundle down the road at 20mph just in case the speed limit is that low. That’s because there are signs everywhere explicitly *telling* you the speed limit.

      • kagekiri

        Yeah, “God” isn’t a very good rule-maker for a supposedly omniscient being, especially for Christians.

        “You can divorce; oh wait, no divorce!”

        “That food is unclean and unholy; no wait, it’s totally okay now!”

        “Eating food sacrificed to idols is blasphemous, oh wait it’s okay, but it’s not okay if it makes you not feel okay!”

        “Killing people is sinning; actually, no, now even thinking of someone as stupid is sinning!”

        • http://creativefidelity.wordpress.com/ Dan F.

          Thanks!  No one ever had thought of those questions before.  Please enlighten us stupid Christians about the substance of our beliefs.

          • kagekiri

            Haha, you mean like “unchanging” God changing his mind constantly? You’re welcome! Glad you realize that your beliefs don’t make sense but you still hold them; if that’s the case, your beliefs really are stupid!

            Wow, such a positive response. Here’s more enlightenment, “stupid Christian”!I’m a former Christian. I couldn’t look at those ridiculous contradictions between claimed character and actions any longer.God doesn’t act loving, he doesn’t act all powerful, he doesn’t act omniscient, he doesn’t act just, he doesn’t act omnipresent, he’s definitely not omni-benevolent; he’s barely consistent or coherent EVEN in Bible stories. He’s at best an utterly horrible liar if he even exists.If you don’t have a problem with that, if you’ve honestly never had doubts about that, congratulations, you haven’t been thinking very hard or taking your scriptures very seriously!Or you’ve bought into the stupid excuse of “his ways are higher” or some other rationalization of why God is so horrible, in which case, God’s still rather incompetent at communication at best, or a shitty creator who can’t make creatures who understand him even when worshiping him is supposed to be the only purpose of our existence.To be fair, that’s just like most other Christians, who barely practice what they’re not preaching because they know next to nothing about their Bibles and accept it all uncritically. But at least you’re not alone in your poorly-considered delusions that just laugh at contradictions instead of processing them honestly!

          • matt

             I’d be more curious to hear your side.  Are you saying these statements are incorrect?

  • Funandprophet

    There’s another absurdity here that everyone seems to be missing – How in the hell does a curving staircase cost as much as a new house?

    • Noadi

      That was my question too. Methinks his architect and/or construction company ripped him off.

    • Heidi

       I’m pretty sure a new house in Brooklyn costs a LOT more than that. But I would guess that he’s including “having” to redesign a bunch of the rest of the house to go along with it. Which doesn’t preclude him being ripped off, of course.

  • sunburned

     Is it me, or did the guy spend 100k on saving the tree…that appears to be dead?

  • JoelJustiss

    Without fruit trees, how could they cherry-pick?

    • http://gloomcookie613.tumblr.com GloomCookie613

      Ba-dum-tsh! Nice one!

  • Some guy

    Summer Seale, I think this thread has greatly benefited from your explanation regarding the “fence laws.”  However, I also think that you’re being quite unfair to characterize it as “insance” and “stupid.” 
     
    The reason is because even if we disagree with it, there is nonetheless an internal consistency in their reasoning, and it is intimately tied into Jewish history.  The rise of Pharisaism began during the Babylonian exile.  The Jewish thought that the reason such a tragedy had befallen them was because they had failed to live according to the laws that had been given to them by God, through Moses, to follow.  I think it is very difficult to appreciate the sheer emotional trauma that being exiled from their homeland, and thus, from the worship of their God (as worship up to that time involved making the necessary sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem), was at the time.
     
    Without a Temple, and with only the law left by which to express their devotion to God – which they thought was necessary to reverse their exile – the Jews began to “build a fence around the Torah” and the righteousness that they sought to express became more and more linked with external observations of the law.  
     
    When this kind of external devotion became hypocritical and was practiced without its correlative internal devotion (charity and love of God etc.), it would become criticized by the prophets and this criticism would later also come from Jesus of Nazareth.  
     
    The religious observances of the Pharisees became the precursor to modern Rabbinic Judaism.  The Orthodox Jews, are of course, still awaiting their messiah, and their hopes for a just world and their deliverance from exile is still tied to their non-hypocritical (of course) external observation of the law.
     
    So while many may look on their religious observances as stupid or insane, I think that when we understand their history it becomes less so.  And while it may appear “silly” as The Friendly Atheist has pointed out, it appears less silly when we consider that this same group of people have not only suffered from the historical circumstances which have given rise to their particular religious expression, but that those motivations were greatly re-invigorated by modern collective suffering stemming from, among other things, the holocaust of the second World War.  
     
    Surely, atheists can still become friendlier then, hey?

    • M J Shepherd

      No, it still seems really silly, all things considered.

    • veganheathen

       Irrational behavior due to historical hardship is still irrational behavior.

    • http://www.summerseale.com/ Summer Seale

      Hey, I’m an atheist living in Israel since eight months. I know *all* about their history.

      Guess what? Two thousand years of praying didn’t help. Herzl and the others around him figured it out. They were atheists, by the way. In fact, the prayers of the religious have brought about nothing whatsoever. Their beliefs are stupid and insane. I don’t have to be friendly about it. You know why?

      Because they’re leeches in this country. You want friendly? Friendly is allowing them to stay at all after seventy years of loafing the fuck around. My solution? Take away all of their money, force them into national service painting tanks and garbage disposal – they’re not fit for military duty anyway – for three years. And then make them take out trash and help the elderly and paint tanks and clean the streets for a month every year until they’re 45. And then we can talk about their stupid and insane beliefs and how they want to impose them on non-religious Jews in this country who defend them with military service, even while the ultra orthodox spit on the women who carry a gun for those fucking cowards to protect them.

      Fuck them. Fuck them and kick them out or throw them in jail until they do service like everyone else who lives here.

      And now I’m being fucking friendly.

      • Wild Rumpus

         BAM!

      • Some guy

        Wow, you seem quite hateful towards the Jews.  I’m not so sure that the 2000+ years of praying didn’t help them. I can’t imagine what else got them through the difficulties that they have had to face. If nothing else, it brought them comfort. I’m sorry that you’re carrying around such a large amount of hatred. It must be quite burdensome. I also find it regrettable that you’ve witnessed the mistreatment of women doing duty in the military in Israel, but I must nonetheless admit that I find your anti-semitism disconcerting.  I hope that you can find it within to appreciate that they’re people too, rather than “leeches.” Be well… 

        • http://www.summerseale.com/ Summer Seale

          If I was hateful towards the Jews, do you think I would have moved to Israel…? Ultra-orthodox does not equate to “The Jews” in my book. And I’m being nice. If you ask an Israeli what he or she thinks, you’ll get worse.

          Don’t ever, ever, accuse me of anti-semitism. I support this nation and I chose to come here and work here. I am far from anti-semitic. You must be a real idiot who thinks that the ultra-orthodox represent Jews or something. They don’t.

          • Some guy

            Apologies.  Not anti-semitic, rather “anti-ultra-orthodox-Jewish people” then.  I’m sure you’re being quite nice afterall. 

            • http://www.summerseale.com/ Summer Seale

              Definitely anti-ultra-orthodox.

              Then I apologize for calling you an idiot.

        • Andrew B.

           He/she is not talking about Jews, he’s talking specifically about Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel, many of whom do not work but rather spend their time studying the Torah while the Israeli taxpayer pays for their living expenses.  It would have been helpful if Summer made that clear, but once it is, his/her anger becomes more understandable.  This isn’t anti-semitism, this is anger to those that refuse to contribute to society for religious reasons and then show contempt to those that protect them from harm.

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/47IDX2QAR6VU6ZAILFU6I23ACQ Joseph

      If we were still living in the Bronze Age, or even the Middle Ages, I would concur with your assessment; but to continue adhering to such ancient rules in the 21st century seems patently insane, silly, and stupid (pick your epithet).  That may not seem friendly to you, but at least it’s honest. 

    • kagekiri

      Some people of my race were oppressed in America, does that mean I can say the Force from Star Wars is real, and no one should say anything “mean”? And if I  start trying to enforce mandatory midichlorian blood testing, you’ll respect and understand that?

      My grandparents on both sides were forced out of China because of massive famine and communist uprisings, does that mean I can be a student of Hogwarts in public without people calling me ridiculous or insane? If I start shoving a Sorting Hat on kids in a school because it’s consistent with the commands of Rowling, I should be respected?

      Taiwanese people have many families with roots as Chinese refugees from Communists who destroyed most of their culture, drove them out of their homes, and they now have to live with one of the most powerful countries in the  world aiming ICBMs at them and constantly antagonizing them. Does that mean they can act like hobbits and claim we all have to follow the rules of the Shire, and we’re not allowed to think they’re stupid when they do it?Going delusional in the face of past oppression isn’t respectable, even if it’s somehow a coping strategy or a matter of overcompensating for cultural loss. ESPECIALLY when they make other people obey their delusions.Plenty of fictional stories have well constructed internal logic, plenty of people have histories of being oppressed even in the last century, but it doesn’t make treating fiction as real any less crazy.

      • Some guy

        I think that your analogy is misguided.  It, of course, would be irrational, to respond to oppression by embracing something that you know is made up.  But that is not what happened with the Hebrew people in the 5th century BCE.  What happened is their religious and cultural identity, which was already present had (for the sake of maintaining their distinct identity as a people, as well as the other things that I’ve already discussed), found a new way of expressing itself.  Though, I suspect you’ll still see this as irratoinal, which of course, is your perogative.  Cheers.

        • Some guy

          sorry.. *irrational.

          • Some guy

            lol.. argh.. *prerogative.

        • kagekiri

          Fine, you want historical examples, with “real” fictional traditions? 

          Then let’s go with the Chinese again. Abused by Western nations for decades in the opium trade, then invaded by the pillaging Japanese, they finally fight back and reclaim their country after WWII, and the commoners…chooses the stupid idealist BS of totalianarism-disguised-as-communism and destroy millenia worth of cultural items and vast numbers of their most educated members of society, driving huge numbers to flee the country as farming collapses due to lack of knowledge of sensible farming practices as the new ruling class fails to make good decisions. Even if you’re horribly oppressed, that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to cut off your nose to spite your face. Because of all that cultural purging, the immigrants who fled China actually retain more Chinese traditions and habits than those currently occupying the mainland. Does that mean they’re all good traditions, because they were oppressed and driven into exile by starvation and political turmoil? No. You evaluate things based on their actual merits. Binding feet? Not common. No one saved that tradition, because it was harmful and pointless. Any who still do that kind of harmful, pointless crap deserve no respect for it. Considering the value of commandments about siege being applied to city planning….yeah, these Orthodox Jews not doing a very good job of even properly applying their traditions. Their past troubles are not justification for current delusions, no matter how long they’ve held the delusions. Age doesn’t make the stupid go away.

  • Ronlawhouston

    Now, now, before we start condemning religious people for saving trees, there has been an ordinance on the books of the City of Austin, Texas that prevents anyone from clearing a tree more than (I believe) 6 inches (it might be 8).  You’ll often seen buildings in Austin with odd shaped corners to build around a tree.  Safeway built a grocery store with a very large tree right in the middle of it.  Of course, that didn’t work because the tree eventually died.

    • http://profiles.google.com/marc.k.mielke Marc Mielke

      That last is kind of awesome. In Hawaii, I’ve known of at least two restaurants that have done this and it makes for a really nice, really unique building. 

      I don’t know what they do when it rains, though, come to think of it. 

  • Tammy2Tone

    A.  Trees are cool, why would any person just cut a cool looking tree down in Brooklyn.  “Land of trees”.  Keep it, seriously.  What I dont get is 100,000$ to save it?  What the hell does that mean?   Those angled steps cost that much to build or something?   PLease.  That is the part that gets me.        If mr OrthoOCD cut the tree down FOR religious reasons, then I’d be kinda pissed.   NOT cutting something down like a harmless beautiful old looking tree,  is not a problem.  This story fits a certain logic that cooincidentally is some Jewish rule.  

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Claire-Stout/1241820429 Claire Stout

    I’m glad the tree didn’t get chopped down for the environmental reasons, not because some “mystical” (did they really use that word?) document said so.

  • Neil

    It’s silly to be sure, but I echo what Funandprophet said.  I know big cities are ridiculously expensive to build in, but why the hell does a few extra square feet of brickwork and concrete cost $100,000?  Even including changing blueprints and work orders, that’s beyond ridiculous. 

    • Tsu Dho Nimh

      They had to work around the tree and protect it during demolition and construction.

      That’s neither easy nor cheap.

  • Lucilius

    The rule in its original context does make sense – as well as the subsequent injunction, in the same coldhearted way.

    The cities ancient Israelites/Judeans were likely to besiege would have gotten much of their wealth from trade in olives or fruit, and practically all of their topsoil preservation and hence ground moisture. The removal of trees, whether in wartime or for lumber, contributed heavily to the region’s desiccation today. And cutting down a tree isn’t like burning this year’s wheat crop: it’ll take years to grow another productive tree.

    But, like the rule about using prisoners as slaves, the prohibition on felling trees wasn’t for the locals’ benefit, or based on any altruistic environmental feeling. The idea was that, if you cut the trees, you’re really just depriving yourself of future taxes or tribute once you’ve conquered the place.

    It’s practical cynicism – the opposite of piety, but the rabbis have found it necessary to obscure the actual meaning to maintain the fiction of biblical holiness.

  • Noadi

    I’m a bit torn on this. Yes it’s ridiculous religious nonsense but on the other hand I’m rather in favor of not cutting down trees in cities if at all possible because there are already so few.

  • anon

    I find this discussion disturbing and unproductive.
    I am a Jewish Atheist (who lives in Israel) and I agree that it’s silly. But, no one’s here is looking at the big picture – this rule however stupid has good environmental side effects, it does not affect anyone who is not part of that specific group and overall, what do you care what a religious Jew wishes to spend his private money on?
    How is that friendly to insult someone for their views? It’s antagonizing for no good reason.
    Now, let us move to more productive ground – Atheism is based on education and we all should strive to promote better education and give people the freedom to choose not to take part in stupid religious crap. But, if we try to preach atheism we are no better than those religions we mock.

    • http://www.zazzle.com/godless_monsters The Godless Monster

       I’m an Arab Atheist, and I could not agree with you more.
      Well said.

  • Tsu Dho Nimh

    Looking at that tree with a landscaper’s eye, it’s badly pruned and unhealthy.  With that planter and pavement elevated around its roots, it is going to die in a few years.

    How about, next time, they go ahead, remove the tree and plant one in its place where it has a chance of surviving.

  • cauchy

    And what’s the matter? Just let them be follow rabbis like blind people xD, it will be better for your mental health.

    Greetings, 
    Just another atheist jew.


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