S'chach and the Environment by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


The Rambam writes in his Guide to the Perplexed that an aspect of Succot is the time for us to appreciate the beauty of Eretz Yisrael and to thank God for giving us the Holy Land.  It is also possible to say that while on Yom Kippur we withdraw from the world, on Succot we return to that world, which of course is God's world.  We have accordingly chosen to write about S'chach and environmental concerns.  We will conclude our essay with a brief discussion of the importance of recycling.

S'chach from Fruit Trees

Rav Zvi Pesach Frank (one of the great Halachic authorities of the twentieth century, who served as Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem until his death in 1691) was asked if it is permissible to cut branches from fruit - bearing trees to be used for S'chach.  The answer to this question depends on when it is permissible to cut a fruit bearing tree.

The Torah (Devarim 02:91-02) forbids us to cut down fruit trees even in time of war.  However, there are certain circumstances in which it is permissible to cut down a fruit tree.  The Talmud (Bava Kama 19b) teaches that if the tree is more valuable (for its wood) than its fruits, or if the tree is damaging other trees then it is permitted to cut the tree down.  These exceptions are codified by the Rambam (Hilchot Melachim 6:8).

The Talmud does not explicitly state that it is permitted to cut down a fruit tree for the sake of fulfilling a mitzvah.  However, the Mishna and Gemara in Tamid 92 seem to clearly indicate that is indeed permissible to do so.  The Mishna relates that the wood from any tree is acceptable for fuel on the altar in the temple, with the exception of olive trees and grapevines. The Gemara presents two opinions as to why olive trees and grapevines are not acceptable.  One authority states that they burn too quickly to produce the right kind of fire for the altar.

The Be'er Sheva (cited by the Mishna Lamelech 7:3) asks why the prohibition to cut down fruit trees is not mentioned in the Gemara as a reason for not using olive wood or grapevines on the Mizbeach.  This authority answers that this prohibition would be suspended for the sake of the great mitzva of producing wood to be used as fuel on the altar.  The Mishna Lamelech answers that they only cut off tree branches as wood for the altar.  The prohibition in relation to fruit trees only applies to cutting down the entire tree.

Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank writes that these two reasons should serve as a basis for permitting cutting branches from a fruit tree for S'chach.  He nevertheless expresses some reluctance to permit this.  Perhaps the reason for his reluctance is the fact that the Gemara (Bava Kama 19b) relates that Rav Chanina stated that his son Shivcha died prematurely because he cut down a fig tree.  This Talmudic passage has led some authorities to be quite wary of cutting down a fruit tree or even pruning it (see the ethical will of Rav Yehuda HaChasid, number 35, who appears to say that a fruit tree should never be cut down apparently because of mystical-kabbalistic reasons).

S'chach from Public Lands

Some individuals cut S'chach from trees on public lands such as forests.  It is imperative in such a situation to procure the necessary permits to do so (see Mishna Berura 736:11).  There are two reasons for this.  First, we must follow the law of the land as the Talmud mentions many times - Dinah Demalchutah Dinah - the law of the land (i.e. secular law) is Halachically binding.  While the Rishonim debate the scope of this rule, the Rema rules (Choshen Mishpat 963:11) that this Halacha applies to any governmental edict whose aim is either to benefit the leadership or improve matters for the general public.  If a governmental authority (such as the natures reserve authority in Israel) forbids cutting trees in certain areas or has regulations regarding how to trim the trees, it is forbidden to violate these rules (see Yechave Da'at 4:64).  Hence, even though the prohibition to cut trees does not apply if the tree not bear fruit (see Rambam Hilchot Melachim 6:8 and Tosafot Baba Batra 62a s.v. Ana), nevertheless governmental regulations regarding such tress should be followed.  Moreover, if the S'chach was taken without obtaining the necessary permits, it is questionable whether a Bracha may be recited when sitting in a Succah that has that such S'chach above it (see Mishna Berura 36 7:01) The following Talmudic passage  (Baba Kama 49a) may also apply to S'chach which was illegally procured:  "One who steals wheat and subsequently grinds, kneads, and bakes the stolen product and then wishes to remove "Challah" and recite a bracha - the one who does this does is not blessing God but rather insulting God."

Recycling S'chach

The best solution for S'chach is to procure S'chach that can be reused for many years.  It may be a violation of the prohibition to waste, Bal Tashchit, for one to procure new S'chach every year if it is easy and affordable to obtain reusable S'chach (as it is for most people in our communities).

In fact, recycling should not be viewed as a matter that is beyond the parameters of Torah concern.  Rav Gavriel Bechoffer (Rosh Kollel in Skokie, Illinois) wrote in the latest issue of the Israeli Torah Journal "Techumin" that there are positive and negative halachic aspects to the issue of recycling.  Rabbi Bechoffer writes that one who recycles fulfills mitzvot such as "loving others as ourself" ואהבת לרעך כמוך and performing acts of kindness  גמילות חסדים.  By recycling we help preserve the environment for others and future generations.

The importance of preserving the environment as an act of גמילות חסדים is demonstrated by the following celebrated Talmudic passage (Ta'anit 32a).  The Talmud tells us that the famous Talmudic figure Choni Ha'Maagal once saw someone plating a Carob tree.  Choni asked him when the tree will bear fruit.  "In seventy years", responded the farmer.  Choni asked, "Do you expect to live for seventy more years?  The farmer responded, "Yet we do find carob trees in the world - just as others planted carob tree for me, I will plant carob tree for others."  Similarly, we must act with kindness to future inhabitants of our planet by taking the necessary steps now to help preserve the health and viability of our environment.

Rav Bechoffer also writes that when it is relatively easy to recycle (such as putting certain garbage in certain containers) one who refuses to recycle may be acting in violation of the prohibition against wasting.  A basis for this assertion in the Gemara (Shabbat 76b) which states that one who covers an oil lamp or uncovers a kerosene lamp violates the prohibition of "Bal Tashchit" since he is wantonly wasting the oil or kerosene.

Of course, it is important not to be an extremist about this matter.  Rav Kook writes (in his celebrated letter to the founders of the Bezalel Art Academy in Jerusalem) that one should never focus on one value to the exclusion of all others.  Rav Kook points out that although wisdom and righteousness are great torah values, nevertheless, Kohelet tells us אל תהיה  הרבה, אל תהיה צדיק הרבה חכם - that one should not be overly righteous or overly wise.

It is also important to balance conservation with the divine directive given to humanity (Bereishit 1:62) to conquer the world.  The Ramban (to Bereishit 1:62) comments that this verse constitutes a divine license for mankind to exploit the world, such as mining the earth for useful metals.  In addition, economic development allows for more opportunities for employment, which engenders human dignity and stable families.  The needs of industrial growth and conservation should be delicately balanced, as the Rambam writes in the first chapter of Hilchot De'ot that one should generally adopt a balanced and centrist path in almost all areas of life.

Recycling seems to be an intelligent and practical means of helping preserve the environment without stifling industrial growth.  Indeed, it is certainly reasonable to suggest that one who apathetically does not sort his garbage in accordance with recycling laws, violates not only  דינא דמלכותא דינא  but also Bal Tashchit.


We will conclude with a citation from a Midrash (Kohelet Rabba 7:31) which should motivate us to be moderate conservationists.

"When God created Adam, He showed him all of the trees of the Garden of Eden.  Hashem said to Adam, "See how magnificent and beautiful My works are and know that all that I have created is for your benefit.  Make sure not to destroy My world because if you do, no one can repair the damage you will have done."

There is a Divine imperative to conserve the world's resources.  Intelligent Recycling is a simple and practical way for us to fulfill this important obligation.

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