Planting a Tree in the End Times: An Analysis of an Islamic and Jewish Saying
It is reported in the Musnad of Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal (d. 855 AD) and in the Musnad of Al-Bazzar (d. 905 AD) that the Prophet Muḥammad (s) said:
“If the [Day of] Resurrection were established upon one of you, and in his hand is a sapling, then he should plant it.”
In a recension in al-Adab al-Mufrad by Al-Bukhārī (d. 870 AD) it is rendered:
“If the Resurrection were established and a sapling were in the hand of one of you, and if he were capable of planting it, then he should do so.”
عَنْ أَنَسِ بْنِ مَالِكٍ، عَنِ النَّبِيِّ صلى الله عليه وسلم قَالَ: إِنْ قَامَتِ السَّاعَةُ وَفِي يَدِ أَحَدِكُمْ فَسِيلَةٌ، فَإِنِ اسْتَطَاعَ أَنْ لاَ تَقُومَ حَتَّى يَغْرِسَهَا فَلْيَغْرِسْهَا.
In another recension al-Adab al-Mufrad, it is not a ḥadīth of the Prophet, but a saying of ʿAbdullah b. Salām (d. 663 AD), the Medinan rabbi-turned-Muslim companion of Muḥammad (s). He reportedly says:
“If you hear that the Antichrist (dajjal) has appeared, and you were planting a sapling (wadiya), then go ahead and plant it, for people will still have livelihood thereafter.”
عَنْ دَاوُدَ بْنِ أَبِي دَاوُدَ قَالَ: قَالَ لِي عَبْدُ اللهِ بْنُ سَلاَمٍ: إِنْ سَمِعْتَ بِالدَّجَّالِ قَدْ خَرَجَ، وَأَنْتَ عَلَى وَدِيَّةٍ تَغْرِسُهَا، فَلاَ تَعْجَلْ أَنْ تُصْلِحَهَا، فَإِنَّ لِلنَّاسِ بَعْدَ ذَلِكَ عَيْشًا.
Known as “the tradition of the sapling” (ḥadīth al-fasīla, or ḥadīth al-fasla), this report has been the subject of many commentaries, both ancient and modern.
The first aforementioned version was considered reliable (ṣaḥīḥ) by the late ḥadīth critic Shuaib al-Arna’ut in accordance with the standard of Muslim (d. 875 AD), the author of Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim. The second was considered ṣaḥīḥ by the late Al-Albani, and the third was considered unreliable.
Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal, Al-Bazzar and Al-Bukhārī trace the first two versions to a Ḥammād b. Salama, a Basran scholar and grammarian. He reportedly heard the tradition from a prominent Basran named Hīshām b. Zayd b. Anas b. Mālik. Ḥadīth aficionados will recognize this name as the grandson of the famous companion and servant of the Prophet, Anas b. Mālik (d. ~712 AD).
Anas b. Mālik was a young Medinan who became a valuable narrator of the Prophet’s sayings because he was one of the last companions to die; he lived approximately eighty years after the Prophet. Anas settled in Basra after the Islamic conquests, and he became the third most prominent narrator of prophetic ḥadīth in Sunni collections, with hundreds of ḥadīth chains going back to him. His reliability is unquestioned by Sunni scholars. In Shia collections, it is reported that Anas lost an imprecation to ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib and is therefore viewed negatively; though it is also reported that Ḥusayn presented Anas as a witness to his status at the Battle of Karbala. 
The premise, therefore, is that Anas heard the tradition of the sapling from the Prophet Muḥammad (either directly or through an unmentioned companion), then he told it to his grandson, who told it to Ḥammād.
The third recension survives through an entirely different chain. Al-Bukhārī relied on a Kufan narrator named Khālid b. Makhlad al-Bajalī (d. ~828 AD), whom he included in his Ṣaḥīḥ. He was considered unproblematic (mā bihi ba’s) by Yaḥya b. Maʿīn (d. 847 AD) and honest but with Shia inclinations (ṣadūq, lā kinnahu yatashayyaʿ) by Abu Dawūd (d. 899 AD). Khālid b. Makhlad narrated it from a scholar in Medina named Sulaymān b. Bilāl (d. ~788 AD), who was considered trustworthy (thiqa) by Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal, Yaḥya b. Maʿīn, and Al-Nasā’ī (d. 915 AD). Sulayman narrated from Yaḥya b. Saʿ īd (d. ~760 AD), the acclaimed Medinan judge and scholar who was a hearer of Anas b. Mālik. He narrated from an early Medinan imam named Muḥammad b. Yaḥya b. Ḥibbān (d. ~738 AD), who was a hearer of the prominent companion Ibn ʿUmar (d. 693 AD) as well as Anas b. Mālik, and he was relied upon by Imam Mālik (d. 795 AD) and the historian Ibn Iṣḥāq (d. 767 AD). He narrated from Dawūd b. Abī Dawūd – and therein lies the weakness of the chain. Al-Albani considered Dawūd b. Abī Dawūd to be unknown (majhūl). I found a Medinan Anṣārī companion by the same name, but I couldn’t verify if it was the same person. If it were the same person, then the report would presumably be ṣaḥīḥ by Sunni standards – otherwise, Al-Albani considered it ḍaʿīf. Finally, this Dawūd narrates from ʿAbdullah b. Salām, the prominent Medinan Jewish Qaynuqāʿ convert and companion.
Although the first two versions would be considered more reliable from a traditionalist perspective, one could consider the possibility that Anas b. Mālik originally heard the ḥadīth from ʿAbdullah b. Salām. Broadly speaking, the culture of using chains of narrators developed after the first generation, and junior companions would sometimes transmit traditions from senior companions without mentioning their names. This phenomenon is called tadlīs al-ṣaḥāba, and Sunni authorities do not consider this problematic, because the companions are all considered reliable. Al-Dhahabī states, “Examples of tadlīs among the companions are many, and there is no shame in this, for their tadlīs is [only] of a companion older than them, and all the companions are just (ʿudūl).” The problem, however, is that Anas, or a later transmitter, could have mistakenly attributed ʿAbdullah b. Salām’s saying to the Prophet (s), which gives it a binding level of authority. It is also plausible that both the Prophet and ʿAbdullah b. Salām narrated their respective versions, but the similarity between the recensions suggests to me that they came from a common origin.
The similarity between the Islamic tradition of the sapling and the Jewish saying of Yohanan ben Zakkai is also too close to be a coincidence. Both were probably penned in Abbasid Iraq but were orally transmitted prior to that. Either it was an Islamic tradition that Jews attributed to earlier rabbis, or it was a rabbinical tradition that ʿAbdullah b. Salām (or others) were quoting – he was, after all, of Jewish origin. The entry of Judeo-Christian sayings into the Islamic tradition (called Isrā’īlīyāt) is a known phenomenon, and it can happen unknowingly.
It is also interesting that, unlike the Jewish saying, the word “Messiah” could have been switched out for “Antichrist”. Both are eschatological figures in each respective tradition, so it does not change the overall meaning of the saying. However, Anas b. Mālik reported from the Prophet (s) that the Antichrist would be followed by seventy-thousand Jews, probably because the Jews are expecting the Messiah. There is the possibility that the report was Islamized in contradistinction to the rabbinical saying.
Regardless of who got the saying from where, the crosspollination that existed between different religious communities during the so-called Islamic Golden Age reflects an interconnectedness that is often missed by those who only specialize in one religious tradition.
Depending on the recension, there can be slight differences in interpretation. In the first two versions, there is the impression that the sapling is being planted at the very end of the world. In the third version, the sapling is being planted when the Antichrist appears, which, in Islamic eschatology, occurs sometime before the apocalypse. In the former, the sapling is being planted because that is a good act in and of itself, while the in the latter, the sapling is being planted for future generations.
Since there are many available commentaries of the sapling tradition, this article will not be able to exhaust them all. However, Muslim thinkers have derived much wisdom from the tradition, and it would be a shanda to neglect some of its pearls.
The Ottoman-era Cairene scholar Al-Munāwī (d. 1621 AD) commented on the ḥadīth, saying, “The meaning of ‘the establishment of the Hour’ is its signs. The proof for this is the ḥadīth, ‘If one of you were to hear that the Antichrist (Dajjal) has appeared, and in his hand were a sapling, then plant it, for people will still have livelihood thereafter.’ The command to plant for those who will come afterward is for when the signs [of the Hour] appear, and little time remains of this world.” In other words, even if the prophecies of the End Times were to manifest, and the end of the world were at hand, one must continue to plant the sapling.
Al-Albani authenticated a report where the famous companion ʿUmar b. al-Khatṭāb (d. 644 AD) asked his father, “What stops you from planting in your land?” So, his father said to him, “I am an elderly man, and I will die soon.” ʿUmar said, “I adjure you, plant in it.” Then, he began working the land by hand with his father.
The late Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia Ibn Baz (d. 1999 AD) was asked about the meaning of the ḥadīth, and he said, “[It is] encouraging good works, for it is known that when the Hour comes, nothing can be done. So, it is intended to encourage works, and that humans must perform work, including agriculture and planting. The believer must be a worker, and not unemployed or lazy, as some people are; no, he must be a worker, he must be active, he must show concern in agriculture and planting trees, and in different areas of work: carpentry, blacksmithing, agriculture, writing, and otherwise. He should not be inactive, rather he should work.”
Contemporary Saudi scholar Dr. Ibrahim al-Wadʿan gleaned the following lessons from the narration:
- Belief in the Hour and its coming in a time that God the Exalted knows. He, the Exalted, said, “The people ask you about the Hour: say, ‘surely, its knowledge is only with God.’” (Surat al-Aḥzāb, verse 63), and the verses regarding this are many.
- The great urge to seize the last moment of life.
- The great urge to plant that which benefits the people after one dies; so that he may have a continuous reward from the people, and so that his charity may be recorded for him on the Day of Resurrection.
- The Prophet (s) used the example of the sapling, which is a small tree. However, it should not be inferred that if a human had something other than a sapling in his hand that he should abandon it and dispose of it.
- The Muslim must not squander in doing a good deed.
- The Muslim must be industrious, productive, and active in his life and society.
- Being mindful of the time, for it is [what composes] human life.
- Optimism, and hope, and looking to the future with a bright outlook.
- This hadith is a basis for optimism.
- Our religion calls for work and making use of the means [available to us], and it is against giving into helplessness and laziness.
- The word “planting” (al-ghars) indicates motion and a new life.
- Striving in righteous works before the end of age and expiration.
- The Prophet (s) loving goodness for his Nation.
- That the Hour will come suddenly [and unexpectedly].
- That a moment has value in life, and one should not underestimate it.
- That work is in accord with one’s ability [to work].
- The entry of women into the discourse, for a sapling does not only concern a man alone.
- Rewards in the Hereafter that come from good works belong to the Muslim, not the disbeliever.
- The preference for working with your hands.
- That if a person conjures the [right] intention for any permissible work, he is rewarded for it. Planting in the earth is a permissible work. If a person intends to purify himself by providing for his family and denying himself poverty; or if a human, a bird, or an animal eats of it, then he is rewarded for it.
- Therein is an encouragement to plant trees and date palms, for in that there is much good, for this house may remain prosperous until the end of the limited duration that is known to its Creator.
- Just as others have planted that which you have been satiated from, plant for those who may come after you.
- The negation of selfishness, love of self; and to benefit others.
- One plants a date palm with the intention of producing dates, and the best and fastest way to do that is with a young date palm, which is a sapling.
- The command in his (s) saying, “then he should plan it” indicates a recommendation, not on obligation – the proof of this is what said before it, “if he is capable”.
I believe that the sapling tradition has an anti-millennarian function. Mankind has always long felt that they are living in the end of days, and this can bring forth panic and stagnation as people expect an imminent end. This ḥadīth encourages us to jog along and keep fulfilling our duties, even when the doomsday clock ticks closer to midnight.
A Jewish Perspective
“If you are holding a sapling in your hand and someone tells you, ‘Come quickly, the Messiah is here!’, first finish planting the tree and then go to greet the Messiah.” – Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai (30 BC – 90 CE),
This quote is first found in the Avot d’Rabbi Natan (“The Fathers” of Rabbi Natan). The text is named for Natan the Babylonian, one of the Rabbinic sages whose wisdom is collected in the Mishnah (the initial compilation and codification of Jewish Oral law). Despite the name, Avot d’Rabbi Natan is not a part of Mishnah, but instead appears as one of the Mesekhtot Qetanot, the minor tractates of Talmud.
Textual Analysis and the Difficulties of Dating the Text
There is significant overlap between Avot d’Rabbi Natan and the similarly named section of Mishnah known as Pirke Avot (the Chapters of the Fathers). Both texts deal with ethical teachings of the early Jewish Sages known as the Tannaim (the generations which lived in the 1st and 2nd century AD) and address many of the same aphorisms, while treating them very differently. Where Pirke Avot simply presents a series of maxims, Avot d’Rabbi Natan presents a saying and then tries to build connections to other sources and moments in Jewish tradition as a way to explain its meaning. This homiletical approach has led to the text being treated as a commentary on Pirke Avot regardless of whether its redactors intended it as such.
The truth is that we cannot know the intent of the redactors in creating this text, nor can we confidently say who its redactors are. Is the Avot of Rabbi Natan a commentary or is it the primary text, with Pirke Avot serving as an abridgement of its wisdom? Was its attribution to “Rabbi Natan” due to the fact that Rabbi Natan was one of the first sages mentioned in the text or because he was its primary editor? If this text was, in fact, assembled by Rabbi Natan, why wasn’t it included in the Mishnah? If the text receives its name simply because Rabbi Natan appears early in the text, then who was the editor and when was the text assembled?
We know that there was a Rabbi Natan among the Tannaim who began compiling the wisdom of his contemporaries before the actual creation of Pirke Avot. Curiously, despite his interest in transmitting ethical and spiritual wisdom to future generations, he is quoted only four times in the Mishnah and not a single time in Pirke Avot. One might argue that this is due to him being a teacher of little consequence. However, history does not support that claim. Rabbi Natan was renowned for his piety and knowledge, and for it was elevated to the role of Av Beit Din (Chief Justice) of the Sanhedrin. Additionally, the Gemara (the collection of debate and commentary on the Mishnah by later generations) quotes Rabbi Natan over 400 times, reflecting that he was widely esteemed and that his teachings were carefully preserved after his passing.
Since Pirke Avot was included in Mishnah, we can date the text confidently to the early 3rd century AD. The fact that Avot d’Rabbi Natan does not appear in the Mishnah frequently leads to the assessment that it came significantly later than Pirke Avot. Because Avot d’Rabbi Natan has a more complete presentation of its themes, it appears to many as a commentary on the more succinct Pirke Avot. To support this idea, they point to structural similarities between the two texts. Both works:
- Begin with the sayings of the Zugot (the first five pairs that headed the Great Sanhedrin as Nasi and Av Beit Din),
- Proceed to a section on the sayings of Hillel, Shammai, Yohanan Ben Zakkai, and their disciples
- Then have a section of attributed sayings of other Sages
- And end on sections with a high concentration of unattributed sayings
The themes covered in the related sections largely compliment one another, though they do not match up. Another support for Avot d’Rabbi Natan as the later text is the fact that there isn’t a single standard text. The existence of two recensions of Rabbi Natan, with evidence of stylistic and substantive differences between them, is taken by academics to argue that it was a work in progress during later generations. While the final editions of Rabbi Natan can certainly be dated to a later date, the existence of variant texts points to their origin in a common tradition and source text. Many academics who embrace the theory that Pirke Avot was the earlier text have dated Avot d’Rabbi Natan to the Gaonic period, arguing that it was a creation of the Academies of the Babylonian Jewish community.
The fact that Pirke Avot can be dated to an early point in the history of Rabbinic discourse makes it tantalizing to leap to the conclusion that it came first, especially in light of the structural similarities. That said, structural similarities, Avot d’Rabbi Natan’s depth of commentary, and the early date for Pirke Avot cannot be taken as conclusive proof for Pirke Avot as the source text. Structural similarities only suggest that one text is based upon the other. These similarities could either be due to a shared source text or because Pirke Avot represents a later distillation of the wisdom contained in Avot d’Rabbi Natan. There is record of significant disagreement and political struggle between Rabbi Natan and the Nesi’im (Princes/Presidents of the Sanhedrin) that he served under, Shi’mon ben Gamaliel and his son, Yehuda. The Mishnah was compiled under Rabbi Yehuda’s guidance. The omission of Rabbi Natan’s words in Pirke Avot and his relative insignificance throughout the Mishnah could point to an intentional exclusion of Rabbi Natan and his collection of the wisdom of the early Sages due to a grudge. In such a case, Rabbi Natan’s wisdom collection might have been excluded and then repackaged as Pirke Avot for personal reasons. The variant versions and extensive commentary might reflect an expansion upon Rabbi Natan’s own commentary, which would have been excised in the process of creating Pirke Avot and might explain why Pirke is bereft of commentary altogether. A concerted effort to erase or limit Rabbi Natan’s influence on Jewish discourse could simultaneously account for Pirke Avot’s brief format and Rabbi Natan’s relative anonymity in contemporary sources despite his prominent position. His significance in the discourse of later generations demonstrates that Rabbi Natan’s teachings were carefully preserved despite this attempt at exclusion. If he assembled a collection of Rabbinic wisdom (either Avot d’Rabbi Natan or an early form of it), as sources claim, it would have likely been preserved by his students, as well.
While a plurality of academics have concluded that Avot d’Rabbi Natan was a product of the Gaonic period, significant questions have led to a range of dates being suggested. Numerous scholars have suggested that a core text dating from the Mishnaic period (from either Rabbi Natan or his direct disciples) became overlaid with other sources and the commentary of later scholars. Variant texts reflect the products of separate Rabbinic schools. A more comprehensive view seems to indicate that Pirke Avot and the variant versions of Avot d’Rabbi Natan were rooted in a common wisdom tradition, accounting for the stylistic similarities and substantive differences.
As stated earlier, there are two versions of Avot d’Rabbi Natan, commonly called Versions A and B. Rabbi Natan-A is considered the standard version of the text. It was used and quoted throughout the Jewish diaspora. Rabbi Natan-B, however, was only quoted by Sephardi rabbis. Rabbi Natan-A is often considered to be the first created but the most highly edited. Rabbi Natan-B came second, but due to its relative obscurity was largely left in its original form. As a result, the final collection of Rabbi Natan-B can be considered to be the more ancient in content.
The “Tradition of the Sapling” can be found in Rabbi Natan-B alone as part of a larger collection of the wisdom of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai. It can be found as part of a larger saying that teaches starting actions from a place of wisdom and that actions which are constructive in the long term appear to harm us in the present moment.  The fact that this Tradition appears in only one version points to it being a later addition. However, it does appear in a section of attributed sayings, indicating that it was included because it was considered authoritative. It likely appeared in its initial form in another source and was added into the section dealing with Rabban Yohanan. The Hebrew of the section fits the Mishnaic Hebrew, dating the traditions with some confidence to the period of Rabban Yohanan.
The Need to Contextualize the “Saying of the Sapling”
To interpret this quote from a Jewish perspective, we should place it firmly within the context of Jewish tradition. We will first explore the significance of trees and the act of planting in Jewish tradition and follow with an examination of the life of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai. Without some understanding of his life or the backdrop of Jewish tradition in which he lived and taught; we might twist the meaning into something unrecognizable to Rabban Yohanan. Many have already interpreted this quote to fit their modern agendas, divorcing it from its speaker and his world.
The Significance of Trees and the Act of Planting
So let’s ground our conversation by rooting it in Jewish scripture. Tanakh (the Jewish Bible) teaches us that fruit-bearing trees are the initial forms of life created. At first consideration, the reasoning for this might seem straightforward.
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֗ים הִנֵּה֩ נָתַ֨תִּי לָכֶ֜ם אֶת־כׇּל־עֵ֣שֶׂב ׀ זֹרֵ֣עַ זֶ֗רַע אֲשֶׁר֙ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י כׇל־הָאָ֔רֶץ וְאֶת־כׇּל־הָעֵ֛ץ אֲשֶׁר־בּ֥וֹ פְרִי־עֵ֖ץ זֹרֵ֣עַ זָ֑רַע לָכֶ֥ם יִֽהְיֶ֖ה לְאׇכְלָֽה׃
God said (to Adam), “See, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food.’ 
Life survives on life. It seems fairly obvious that in order for more complex forms of life to exist, something must be at the bottom of the food chain. In the process of creation, G-d creates a means of sustenance before creating those who need to be sustained. Light and darkness, dry earth, and the water cycle come into existence so that fruit bearing trees and seed-bearing plants might live. The fruits and vegetables, in turn, enable the survival of animal, and ultimately human life. It would be only logical, then, that the first forms of life would be the fruit bearing tree.
This emphasis on trees as the initial creation of life manifests itself in Rabbinic thought through a stress on the act of planting. In the book of Vayikra (Leviticus), Israel receives the command:
וְכִי־תָבֹ֣אוּ אֶל־הָאָ֗רֶץ וּנְטַעְתֶּם֙ כׇּל־עֵ֣ץ מַאֲכָ֔ל וַעֲרַלְתֶּ֥ם עׇרְלָת֖וֹ אֶת־פִּרְי֑וֹ שָׁלֹ֣שׁ שָׁנִ֗ים יִהְיֶ֥ה לָכֶ֛ם עֲרֵלִ֖ים לֹ֥א יֵאָכֵֽל׃
When you enter the land and plant any tree for food, you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden for you, not to be eaten.
In the mind of the Sages, this should not just be read as a statement of a law prohibiting the consumption of fruits of young trees. The early Rabbis taught that “When you enter the land and plant any tree for food” should actually be read as “When you enter the land of Israel, plant trees for food.” The Rabbis saw in this law an emphatic call to action. Just as the first work of G-d’s hand on the earth was creating fruit bearing trees, Israel’s first work in their new land ought to be planting them.
It logically follows that if it is a priority to plant trees, it should equally be a priority to protect them. Jewish scripture takes this to a seeming extreme. While murder is prohibited by Torah (as human beings are made b’tselem Elohim – in the form of the Divine), there are times where it is permitted to take life, as in war or delivering capital punishment. Destruction of fruit bearing trees, on the other hand, is forbidden even if it would ensure your victory in battle.
G-d tells Israel:
כִּֽי־תָצ֣וּר אֶל־עִיר֩ יָמִ֨ים רַבִּ֜ים לְֽהִלָּחֵ֧ם עָלֶ֣יהָ לְתׇפְשָׂ֗הּ לֹֽא־תַשְׁחִ֤ית אֶת־עֵצָהּ֙ לִנְדֹּ֤חַ עָלָיו֙ גַּרְזֶ֔ן כִּ֚י מִמֶּ֣נּוּ תֹאכֵ֔ל וְאֹת֖וֹ לֹ֣א תִכְרֹ֑ת כִּ֤י הָֽאָדָם֙ עֵ֣ץ הַשָּׂדֶ֔ה לָבֹ֥א מִפָּנֶ֖יךָ בַּמָּצֽוֹר׃
רַ֞ק עֵ֣ץ אֲשֶׁר־תֵּדַ֗ע כִּֽי־לֹא־עֵ֤ץ מַאֲכָל֙ ה֔וּא אֹת֥וֹ תַשְׁחִ֖ית וְכָרָ֑תָּ וּבָנִ֣יתָ מָצ֗וֹר עַל־הָעִיר֙ אֲשֶׁר־הִ֨וא עֹשָׂ֧ה עִמְּךָ֛ מִלְחָמָ֖ה עַ֥ד רִדְתָּֽהּ׃
When in your war against a city you must lay siege to capture it, you must not destroy its (fruit-bearing) trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human that you should besiege them? Only trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed; you may cut them down for constructing siegeworks against the city that is waging war on you, until it has been reduced. 
No matter how vile the opponent, no matter how desperate the siege, you may not lay waste to your enemy’s orchards. You can partake of the fruits on the branches of their trees, but no matter how much you need a battering ram or a ladder to scale their walls, fruit bearing trees are sacrosanct.
Against the backdrop of carnage and wholesale brutality, laying an axe to your enemy’s orchard seems like a relatively trivial act. An argument might even be made that among the means of violence, it is the least of evils – a relatively bloodless way to destroy your enemy’s morale and bring the cruelty of war to a quick end. Compared to other tactics, it seems downright humane. Why then is the destruction of the fruit bearing tree deserving of Divine censure?
Hakham Avraham ibn Ezra says in his commentary on Devarim (Deuteronomy):
Why would Scripture say that you shall not destroy fruit trees, because, unlike a human being, they cannot run away from you?… Rather, the following is the meaning of this verse. “For thou mayest eat of them, but thou shalt not cut them down, for the tree of the field is man”; that is, the life of man rests upon the (fruit bearing) tree.
Rabbi Obadiah ben Yosef Sforno adds:
The purpose of laying siege to a city instead of assaulting it and destroying it, is to preserve it intact after its inhabitants have been forced to surrender. Cutting down fruit bearing trees would be the opposite of your objectives in such a war.
War is a struggle between people, but the destruction of trees is an assault on the very preconditions of life. Scorched earth conquest is a stratagem of the hopeless who want to inflict destruction at all costs. Such a victory is hollow and pyrrhic because destroying fruit bearing trees does not merely hurt the living, for trees are not a possession like any other. Other crops we sow and harvest in the same year. Once planted, their seeds grow into a source of sustenance quickly. Who else do they belong to besides those who are here and now?
In contrast, trees are a trust we hold for all generations. Cutting down an orchard isn’t simply an attack on the enemy in front of you, it is a strike against countless ancestors who planted the trees and those yet to be born who will find nourishment in their branches. This idea is beautifully rendered in a short story from the Talmud:
Honi HaMe’aggel (one of the early sages) came across an old man planting a carob tree and asked him, ”This tree you’re planting – how long will it take to bear fruit?”
“Not for seventy years,” the man replied.
“Do you think you’re going to live another seventy years and eat from this tree?’ Honi responded.
“No,” said the man,”but I came into a world full of carob trees. As my ancestors planted for me, I plant for the generations yet to come.”
When we plant corn, we reasonably imagine that we will be around to eat it at harvest time. However, no one can assume that they are promised the years it will take for the tree to fruit. We might benefit from the tree. Just as likely, we might never taste its fruit. All we can know is that future generations will benefit from our planting and the loving care we show the tree as it grows.
In Judaism, there is the idea of chesed shel emet – a true act of loving kindness. Most acts of kindness come with some benefit to the person who performs them. The recipient might show the actor some favor. The actor might appear to others as a good person, or the act might serve to cover up some fault. A chesed shel emet comes with no expectation of benefit and no way of being truly reciprocated. It is these acts of true mercy that breathe life into this world. In modern Jewish parlance, the concept of chesed shel emet is typically associated with the act of preparing a body for burial. After all, the dead can’t thank or reward those who bury them. Having attended numerous funerals, I can also say that the subject of who prepared the body of the deceased for burial has never come up. If someone is trying to appear righteous, there are certainly more effective approaches than helping with burial preparations.
Where burial is a chesed shel emet for the immediate previous generation alone, planting a tree is a true act of loving kindness for all generations to come. The tree that we plant today not only feeds future generations, but it inspires them to plant for their descendants. It is an expression of the chain of concern and love set in motion by G-d Himself, who brought forth the first trees, and taught our earliest father, Adam, to plant.
When someone cuts down a tree, they are not attacking the enemy in front of them. They are interrupting a chain of tender love established in ancient days and tended by those who came before us for the sake of the innumerable faces yet to be born.
Where the destruction of the tree embodies the ultimate nihilism of a life driven by ego, the planting of a tree is an expression of faith. Every time we plant a tree, we declare to the forces of cynicism and pessimism that life matters, that the future is filled with possibility, and that the future is worth our time and sacrifice today.
The Life of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai
Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai lived in a time in the history of Israel when most would have given into pessimism. Rome had conquered Judea in 63 BC, and Roman governance of the region was characterized by policies of interference in Israel’s religious life couched in superficial accommodation. Despite growing up under the Roman heel, Yochanan lived a life of unshakeable faith. He was a direct disciple of Hillel the Elder and is credited with having received the fullness of his understanding from both Hillel and Shammai (the foundational sages of the Talmudic period).
His students described him as a model of character, saying:
In all his days he never engaged in idle conversation; and he never walked four cubits without engaging in Torah study and without donning tefillin (for prayer and contemplation); no person ever preceded him into the study hall; and he never slept in the study hall, neither substantial sleep nor a brief nap; and he never contemplated matters of Torah in alleyways filthy with human excrement, as doing so is a display of contempt for the Torah; and he never left anyone in the study hall and exited; and no person ever found him sitting and silent, i.e., inactive; rather, he was always sitting and studying; and only he opened the door for his students, disregarding his own eminent standing; and he never said anything that he did not hear from his teacher; and he never said to his students that the time has arrived to arise and leave the study hall except on Passover eves, when they were obligated to sacrifice the Paschal lamb, and Yom Kippur eves, when there is a mitzvah to eat and drink abundantly. 
For his deep respect for others, his humility, his steadfast devotion to his students, and his dedication to inculcating the teachings of Jewish tradition, he was made chief justice (Av Beit Din) of the Great Sanhedrin at the Bayt Ha-Miqdash in Jerusalem, presiding there for 30 years.
Tensions flared up between Rome and the Jews following the plundering of the Bayt Ha-Miqdash and the arrest of several Jewish leaders by the Roman governor. In 66 CE, the Zealot factions took up arms and initially found great success against the Roman forces. However, by 69 CE, under intense pressure from the legions commanded by the future emperor Vespasian, infighting began to fracture Jewish unity. In the besieged city of Jerusalem, Rabban Yohanan counseled the Zealots to sue for peace, fearing that their hubris would lead to the annihilation of the Jewish people. The leader of the Zealots, Abba Sikkara (his own nephew), rejected his advice out of fear that his own people would turn against him.
Faced with the reality that his people were fragmented and that the war was unwinnable, Rabban Yohanan realized that he needed to take a drastic step to preserve the Jewish community. Jerusalem was teetering on destruction, and the Jewish people faced danger from each other as well as the Romans. He had to escape the city. Pretending to be dead, he hid in a coffin which was borne out of the city by two of his closest disciples. Outside of the city, he encountered Vespasian, who he prophesied was soon to become the Emperor. When the prophecy bore out, Vespasian asked Rabban Yohanan to make a request of him. Yohanan asked for three things:
- A doctor to heal Rabbi Tzadok. Rabbi Tzadok was a priest who was also a learned scholar of law. Wise and fair, Tzadok was counted as a student of the stringent school of Shammai, but often applied the lenient interpretations of Hillel to the situations he ruled on. A man of intense piety, he fasted for forty years, eating only at night, as a means to stave off the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. However, after 40 years of fasting, Tzadok was on death’s door. With the Temple and city on the verge of destruction, Yohanan realized that a man like Tzadok would be invaluable if the Jewish spirit was to be preserved.
- The preservation of the dynasty of Hillel. The house of Hillel, led at the time by Gamaliel, was part of the Davidic lineage. Just as preserving a clear priestly lineage through Rabbi Tzadok was necessary, the royal bloodline of David had to be protected if the kingdom was to be restored in the future.
- The city of Yavneh, its sages, and the protection of the city. Yohanan recognized that there had to be a place which could serve as a center of Jewish learning if the life of Israel was to be preserved in the absence of the Bayt ha-Miqdash. Following the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, Yohanan reestablished the Sanhedrin in Yavneh, which immediately got to work addressing the question of how to implement Jewish law in the absence of the Temple.
Rather than give in to the forces of doubt and to surrender in the face of a seemingly hopeless situation, Yohanan tried to convince others to take the path of peace so that the Jewish people and the Temple might survive. When the vanity of the Zealots ensured the destruction of the Temple, Yohanan didn’t give up. He did everything in his power to preserve every necessary ingredient to restore Israel and ensure the continuity of his people. Rabban Yohanan believed that the future was filled with possibility and did everything in his power to plant the Tree of Life to sustain his people in the future. Every move he made anticipated that Divine restoration was just around the corner.
Rabban Yohanan’s life and words point to a man who believed that each time we choose between sin and righteousness, our choice is of cosmic significance. To illustrate the emphatic stress he placed on acts, let’s examine his teaching on the power of the observance of the Jewish Sabbath:
“If all of Israel was to observe Shabbat completely for two weeks in a row, the Redemption would come immediately.”
What does it mean to observe the Sabbath completely? One must do more than simply refrain from all manner of creative work (a task that requires more mindfulness than the reader might think), we must commemorate the day with both punctilious attention to ritual detail AND wholehearted joy. All of Israel, it would seem, would need to embrace the state of one in love with G-d, acting out of love to bring joy to the Beloved. Such a selfless act to honor G-d has the power to bring the Redemption. It might seem that the stress on this teaching is toward the collective. However, notice that Rabban Yohanan does not talk about the average of Israelite observance. ALL of Israel – each and every Israelite – must lay aside material benefit and align their personal desire completely with the Divine will. Each person’s observance has the power to bring or abort Israel’s transformation and ultimate redemption.
Rabban Yohanan did not limit the power of acts to eschatology. He extended it to events which occurred in his own lifetime. For example, when asked why Jerusalem fell and the Temple was destroyed, Yohanan did not give the pragmatic answer that Rome had an overwhelming military and experienced commanders. Instead, he claimed that the destruction of the Temple resulted directly from the fracturing of the Jewish community due to a deep and baseless hatred for one another rather than the power of Roman legions. Just as the world of the Second Temple was destroyed by blind hatred, Israel would be redeemed through the power of kindness.
Another hallmark of Rabban Yohanan’s teaching was his belief in the imminent arrival of the Messiah and the redemption of Israel. Despite the onslaught of Roman might, despite the displacement of Israel from Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in his own lifetime, Yohanan trusted in the Divine promise of Redemption and the coming of the Messianic king. He realized early on that the Zealot rebellion would ultimately fail because it did not take the service of G-d as its foundation. His requests to Vespasian (safeguarding the priestly and Davidic lines, as well as the continuation of Rabbinic scholarship) did not simply protect his people, but demonstrated his belief that G-d would make good on the promise of Messianic redemption. The Temple would be restored, therefore righteous priests would be needed to serve in it. The Messiah would come, and so we must do our utmost to preserve the line of David. The covenant between G-d and Israel must be maintained and a line of scholars who could teach its observance were needed. In Yohanan’s mind, the belief in the coming Messiah wasn’t an empty platitude; it was an organizing principle that governed his every choice. Even on his deathbed, his last teachings to his disciples revolved around the Messiah. His final words were “Prepare a throne for Hezekiah, the King of Judea, who is coming”, implying that the Messiah and Israel’s deliverance were just around the corner.
Rabban Yohanan’s teachings ought to be interpreted in light of his beliefs that actions are of profound consequence and that the restoration of Israel was at hand. When he says:
“If you are holding a sapling in your hand and someone tells you, ‘Come quickly, the Messiah is here!’, first finish planting the tree and then go to greet the Messiah.”
Yohanan is making a radical declaration. As we’ve established, planting the sapling is an act of true loving-kindness toward future generations. It’s a declaration that the future has worth, and a belief that we all play a role in building that future.
One might think, though, that if the Messiah has appeared, though, of what value is investing in the future? My act will be nothing more than background noise in the profound events that are about to unfold. G-d’s kingdom is about to be realized upon the earth – history as we know it is wrapped up. Whether I am righteous or sinful has been decided. What the world is going to become is in G-d’s hands. The time to decide Fate – both cosmic and individual – has come to an end.
“No!,” declares Rabban Yohanan. “Each decision that we make matters!” Every choice made throughout history, from Adam and Eve to the very last moment of human history, is significant. By our choices, we either align our souls with the Divine Will or succumb to the schemes of the ego. And as we struggle with each righteous act to transform our souls, we help to elevate the world and usher in the age of its Redemption. Even if all of the promised signs heralding the Messiah’s arrival had come, there is still time to rush to do a true act of charity and no telling how profound its impact might be. Kindness is the foundation of the world. From the viewpoint of Jewish tradition, chesed animates the world and transforms the soul. The act of planting a tree (or any act of true kindness) in the final moments might be what tips the universal scale toward righteousness. That act of love might soften the hearts of others and inspire them toward goodness. Perhaps a selfless act to provide for the needs of others when our own ultimate fate is about to be decided might be the catalyst that helps us to transcend our ego. We are no less obligated in the last moments of history and our actions have no less power. Mercy can be sought out and found up to the very end. Redemption, both personal and cosmic, hinges upon what we do with every single breath.
 Cashdan, Eli (1965), “Introduction”, in A. Cohen (ed.), The Minor Tractates of the Talmud: Massektoth Ketannoth, Volume I, London: Soncino Press.
 Saldarini, Wisdom of the Fathers according to Rabbi Nathan, pp 10-11
 Avot D’Rabbi Natan 31(version B)
 Saldarini, pp 11-12
 Bereshit/Genesis 1:29
 Vayikra (Leviticus), 19:23
 Vayikra (Leviticus) Rabbah, 25:3
 Devarim (Deuteronomy), 20:19-20
 Ibn Ezra on Devarim, 20:19:1
 Sforno on Devarim, 20:19:5
 Ta’anit 23a
 Tanya, Part IV; Iggeret HaKodesh 9:2; Tehillim (Psalms), 89:3
 Sukkah 28a,
 Gittin, 56a-b
 Shabbat, 118b – This statement is a tradition from his teacher, Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai
 Yoma, 9b
 Avot d’Rabbi Natan 4
 Avot D’Rabbi Natan 25