Appreciating God through Nature1

The Torah exhorts us to love God.2 But how does one love an immortal, infinite, non-physical being? Maimonides teaches that one way is to focus on the wonders of Creation.3 When we observe how a little seed can transform into something so beautiful and alive, we are overcome with awe and appreciation for the Almighty.

Mankind's first mission was to tend a garden: Adam was placed in the Garden of Eden to look after and cultivate the beautiful garden that God prepared.4

God first appeared to Moses in a thorn bush,5 because God wanted to emphasize that even vegetative life is infused with the Divine Presence.6

The Sages tell us that one should not simply enjoy the beauty of nature for its own sake, but use it as an opportunity to praise God for creating such beauty in this world.7 Some of God's most amazing miracles are happening right now in your own backyard!

Blessings on Vegetation8

Many blessings give us the opportunity to appreciate God in nature.

Upon the first sighting of the new blossoms of fruit trees in the month of Nissan (springtime), the following blessing is recited:9

Blessing on New Blossoms

Ashkenazi Pronunciation

Sefardi Pronunciation

    

 

There are also several blessings to be said upon enjoying the aroma of trees and flowers in your home garden.10 These blessings are only recited if the fragrance was approached with the purpose of smelling it; if one just happened to be passing the garden, the blessing is not recited.11

One who derives pleasure from the fragrance of a woody tree or shrub (or their products) recites the following:12

Blessing on Fragrant Tree

Ashkenazi Pronunciation

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This blessing is only recited on trees that: 1) grow with bark, and 2) the bark-covered stem/trunk normally grows to a height of more than 24 cm. (as opposed to mint). It must also normally produce leaves directly from the stem, trunk, or branches, and not just from the fruit or flowers.13 Included in this category are roses, rosemary and honeysuckle.14

If a fragrance is coming from a grass or herbaceous plant (e.g. mint, hyacinth), the following blessing is recited:15

Blessing on Fragrant Grass

Ashkenazi Pronunciation

Sefardi Pronunciation

    

 

What about fruits and vegetables? Nowadays, most fruits and vegetables do not emit such strong aromas. 16 But if you encounter a particularly strong and enjoyable fruit or vegetable fragrance, then if it is 1) primarily consumed as a food and not as a spice (e.g. strawberries, but not cinnamon), and 2) you pick it up for the purpose of smelling it, then the following blessing is recited:17

Blessing on Fragrant Fruit

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What if you are enjoying a delicious natural aroma, but you can't determine which blessing to recite? There is an all-inclusive blessing which may be recited over any good aroma:18

Blessing on a Natural Aroma

Ashkenazi Pronunciation

Sefardi Pronunciation

    

 

Cutting Down a Fruit Tree

The Torah forbids cutting down a fruit-bearing tree.19 This prohibition is only against cutting down the whole tree; in order to instill in us an appreciation for items of significance.20

If a tree no longer bears fruit (or can only produce a very small amount of fruit), it is permitted to cut down the tree.21 However, one may not cut down a young sapling that is not yet mature enough to produce fruit.

It is permitted to chop down a fruit tree if one needs to build in that location.22 But it is forbidden to do so merely to extend the garden area or to increase the sunlight.23 Interestingly, it is permitted to cut down a tree for the purpose of planting a better tree there.24 Moreover, it is always permissible to cut down a tree when it is necessary to fulfill a mitzvah, such as to build a sukkah.25

One may cut down a fruit tree, if it is:

  • damaging other vegetative life26
  • causing damage to one's home27 or even blocking a window28
  • damaging the public29 or becoming a public nuisance30
  • attracting annoying insects31
  • becoming too expensive to maintain32
  • originally planted with the intention to be uprooted33

Even when it is permitted to cut down a fruit tree, it is considered unpropitious to do so. Therefore it should be avoided, unless necessary.34

Gardening on Shabbat and Yom Tov

The Torah forbids creative physical acts on Shabbat and Yom Tov. This includes:

  • removing debris from the garden35
  • digging36
  • fertilizing37
  • seeding38
  • planting39
  • watering40
  • weeding41
  • detaching anything from the ground,42 including branches and or flowers43
  • raking leaves44

Moreover, trees and plants are muktzeh,45 as are all gardening supplies.46

In order to prevent someone from accidentally detaching a fruit on Shabbat, the Sages forbid smelling a fruit that is attached to a tree.47

On Shabbat, it is forbidden to walk into a garden for the purpose of checking if work needs to be done there after Shabbat.48

Sprinklers may be turned on before Shabbat, even though they will continue to operate on Shabbat.49 This is allowed because there is no human act being done on Shabbat. The sprinklers or irrigation system may also be set on a timer to turn on during Shabbat, if there is no human intervention involved. It is permitted to turn off a sprinkler and/or tap on Shabbat,50 providing that no electric device is involved.

On Chol HaMoed, only light gardening work may be done to prevent the garden from deteriorating.51 Improving or expanding a garden is not appropriate during Chol HaMoed.52

The Month of Av

The first nine days of the month of Av are a time of tragedy for the Jewish people. Consequently, we refrain from the pleasurable planting53 of trees, flowers and grass during this time.54 However, weeding and other gardening work is permitted.55 Also, a professional gardener may plant as part of his job.56

Whose Tree is it?

Ownership of a tree is determined by the location of the trunk. Even if the branches and roots extend into someone else's property, the location of the trunk determines ownership of the entire tree.57

It is permitted to plant a tree in your private yard, even though the roots will eventually damage the neighbor's property.58 Since at the time of the planting, it was done in the owner's property, and only afterwards the roots will extend on their own into the neighbor's domain, the neighbor does not have the right to stop you from planting it.59 However, once there are bothersome roots or branches entering a neighbor's yard, the neighbor may chop down those roots or branches within his property.60

It is considered praiseworthy to plant trees for people to benefit from the shade, beauty and fruit.61 The Talmud uses the metaphor of a tree to illustrate the idea of being selflessly devoted to building a better future:

An old man was planting a tree, when a young person passed by and asked, "What are you planting?"

"A carob tree," the old man replied.

"That's foolish," said the youth. "Don't you know that it takes 70 years for a carob tree to bear fruit?"

"That's okay," said the old man. "Just as others planted for me, I am planting for future generations."

Grafting

The Torah forbids the grafting of any trees or bushes with others species.62 This is considered meddling with the natural order of God's universe.63 It is, however, permitted to plant seeds near the seeds or roots of a different species,64 except in the Land of Israel, where it is forbidden.65

(Grape vines have a unique status in Jewish law and have stricter rules than those enumerated in this section.66 A rabbi should be consulted for more information.)

Different varieties of the same species of fruit may be grafted with each other67 and planted near each other. However, a rabbi should be consulted to determine what is considered the "same species."

Trees that were grafted in a forbidden fashion must be uprooted.68 It is certainly forbidden to further their development by watering, fertilizing, pruning, etc.69 In any case, the fruits produced from grafted trees may be eaten.70 The products of crossbreeding may not be used for the mitzvah of the four species on Sukkot.71

Orlah72

The Torah forbids deriving benefit from any fruit during the first three years since a tree was planted.73 This is because the fruit has not yet achieved its ideal maturity.74

Only fruit that are grown from woody trees or shrubs are bound by the orlah restrictions. This includes apples, grapes, peaches, plums, cherries, blueberries, all citrus fruits and all tree nuts. Vegetables are always exempt from orlah.75 The following items have no orlah restrictions: tomatoes, bananas, pineapples, strawberries, melons, corn, lettuce, sunflower and all root products (such as potatoes and radishes).

The rule is that only a fruit whose blessing is borei pri ha'etz will bear orlah restrictions.76

Other parts of a fruit tree – e.g. flowers, leaves, shoots – are exempt from orlah.77

The orlah laws apply both in Israel and in the Diaspora.78 The three-year count is not based simply on calendar years and the calculation can get somewhat complex.79 Moreover, since bare-root and container-grown fruit trees possibly begin a new orlah count when they are replanted, it is important to consult a rabbi to determine the status for particular fruit trees.

It is a good idea to remove the forbidden fruit as they form.80 This will strengthen the tree and result in better fruits in the future.

Insects

The Torah forbids eating any insects that are technically visible to the naked eye even if they are totally camouflaged within the item. Most people are surprised to learn that it is far worse to inadvertently eat a tiny insect than it is to eat pork.81

In different locales and seasons, insects are attracted to different types of vegetables. Therefore, take the necessary precautions to keeps bugs away from your home garden. But most importantly, make sure that you carefully inspect the produce before eating it. Some guidelines for American consumers are online here.

Gardening in Israel

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of gardening in Israel pertains to the laws of the Sabbatical year, Shmita. The Torah says that during the final year of a regular seven-year agricultural cycle, the Land of Israel must remain fallow and ownerless. During the Shmita year, it is forbidden to plow, plant, harvest, prune, etc. Moreover, whatever grows on its own may be eaten by anyone, and the field's owner may not stop others from partaking.82

The observance of Shmita imbues trust in God, with an appreciation that the land produces fruit only because God wills it.83

The next Shmita years will be 5775 (2014-2015). Since the laws are detailed and numerous, it is recommended to learn from a source like "Understanding Shmittoh" by Rabbi Dovid Marchant (Feldheim.com).

Further, produce grown in Israel involves unique issues relating to tithes. All produce grown in the Land of Israel cannot be eaten until tithes have been separated. Many stores and restaurants have already done this, but one should verify this before eating. These laws apply even to Israeli-grown produce that is exported to the Diaspora – e.g. Jaffa oranges, Carmel tomatoes, pomelos, olives and bell peppers.

As this is a complex topic, refer to the PDF printout: "Guide to Separating Tithes from Fruits & Vegetables."

Blessing on Separating Tithes

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Sefardi Pronunciation

    

 

Blessing on the Second Tithe

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Man is Like a Tree84

The Torah compares a human being to a tree.85There is much that we can learn from trees86 – from their vibrancy, growth patterns, and perseverance under difficult conditions.

A tree needs to be planted in the earth. The soil is not only the source through which nourishment is absorbed, but also provides space for the roots to anchor firmly in the ground.

This is true for people as well. To paraphrase the Talmud:87

If you have many branches and few roots, then a wind can turn your tree upside down. Whereas if you have few branches and many roots, even if all the winds of the world were to blow, you will not budge from your place.

In the quiet moments of reflection, we know it matters little if we appear successful on the outside, with full branches and a fancy car. Because "if the roots are few" – if there is little connection to our Torah heritage – then we are vulnerable to being swayed by trends and fads that may not be in our best interest. For without deep roots, "a wind can turn the tree upside down."

For millennia, the Torah has been our tried and true formula – for defining success, building healthy relationships, and attaining peace of mind. It has withstood the greatest test, the test of time. It is the fertile soil to plant our roots. "For even if all the winds of the world were to blow, you will not budge from your place."


  1. Thanks to Rabbi Shmuel Silinsky and Dan Gordon for their invaluable contributions to this article.
  2. Deut. 6:5; Rambam (Yesodei HaTorah 2:1)
  3. Rambam (Yesodei HaTorah 2:2)
  4. Genesis 2:15, based on Ibn Ezra and Radak. Cf. Radak (Genesis 3:17).
  5. Exodus 3:2
  6. Shemot Rabbah 2:5 (Vilna ed.)
  7. Irving Bunim, Ethics from Sinai 3:9 [Feldheim]; Chovot HaLevavot (Sha’ar HaBechina) as quoted in Yalkut Me’am Loez (Avot 3:7).
  8. More information on the blessings on aromas can be found in Rabbi Hanoch Slatin’s Re’iach HaSadeh: The Fragrant Field [Feldheim].
  9. Orach Chaim 226:1
  10. Orach Chaim 216:1
  11. See Orach Chaim 217:1 and Mishnah Berurah
  12. Orach Chaim 216:2
  13. Mishnah Berurah 216:6
  14. VeZot HaBracha 19:1
  15. Orach Chaim 216:2
  16. VeZot HaBracha 19:2
  17. Orach Chaim 216:2
  18. Orach Chaim 216:2
  19. Deut. 20:19; Rambam (Melachim 6:8); Sefer HaMitzvot (negative mitzvah #57)
  20. Sefer HaChinuch 529
  21. Rambam (Melachim 6:9); Chavot Yair 195
  22. Taz (Yoreh De’ah, end of 116)
  23. Chavot Yair 195
  24. Aitz HaSadeh 4:4
  25. Shi’elat Ya’avetz 1:76
  26. Rambam (Melachim 6:9)
  27. Shu”t HaRashba 7:510
  28. Aruch HaShulchan (Yoreh De’ah 116:13)
  29. Rambam (Shu”t Pi’er HaDor §54)
  30. Shu”t Sho’el U’Meishiv 4:1:28
  31. Chikrei Lev (vol. 2, Yoreh De’ah 11)
  32. Rambam (Melachim 6:9)
  33. Sdei Chemed (Marechet Bet 47)
  34. See Sefer Aitz HaSadeh (chapter 1) and Shmirat HaNefesh V’HaGuf
  35. Magen Avraham 244:8
  36. Mishnah Shabbat 7:2
  37. Chayei Adam 10:3
  38. Mishnah – Shabbat 7:2
  39. Mishnah – Shabbat 7:2
  40. Mishnah Berurah 336:26
  41. Rambam (Shabbat 8:1)
  42. Mishnah – Shabbat 7:2
  43. Shemirat Shabbat KeHilchato 26:10
  44. Mishnah – Shabbat 7:2
  45. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, as quoted by Rabbi Y. P. Bodner in The Halachos of Muktza [Feldheim], pg. 86
  46. Halachos of Muktza, pg. 86
  47. Orach Chaim 336:10
  48. Shemirat Shabbat KeHilchato 26:28
  49. Shemirat Shabbat KeHilchato 26:8
  50. Shemirat Shabbat KeHilchato 26:8
  51. Orach Chaim 537:1-2; Piskei Teshuvot 537:3
  52. Orach Chaim 537:9
  53. Orach Chaim 551:2
  54. Shu”t Rivovot Ephraim 1:374
  55. ibid
  56. ibid
  57. Choshen Mishpat 167:2; Shu”t Igros Moshe (Choshen Mishpat 1:43)
  58. Choshen Mishpat 155:32
  59. ibid
  60. Choshen Mishpat 155:26, 155:30
  61. See Talmud – Ta'anit 5b
  62. Leviticus 19:19; Yoreh De’ah 295:1. Regarding cross-pollinating, see Shu”t Minchat Yitzchak 7:12, Shu”t Minchat Shlomo 2:100:7, and Halichot Shlomo (vol. 2, pg. 189).
  63. Ramban (Leviticus 19:19)
  64. Yoreh De’ah 295:3, 295:5
  65. Yoreh De’ah 297:1; Shach (Yoreh De’ah 295:2)
  66. See Yoreh De’ah 296
  67. Yoreh De’ah 295:6
  68. Yoreh De’ah 295:7
  69. Talmud – Makkot 21b
  70. Yoreh De’ah 295:7
  71. Chayei Adam 152:2
  72. More information about this can be found at www.star-k.org
  73. Leviticus 19:23; Yoreh De’ah 294:4
  74. Ramban (Leviticus 19:23)
  75. Talmud – Brachot 36a
  76. As heard from Rabbi Yitzchak Berkovits
  77. Yoreh De’ah 294:2
  78. Yoreh De’ah 294:8. In Israel, the obligation is biblical and hence more stringent; in the Diaspora the obligation is rabbinic and hence more lenient.
  79. Yoreh De’ah 294:4-5
  80. As heard from Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach
  81. See Yoreh De’ah §84.
  82. Exodus 23:10-11; Leviticus 25:2-7
  83. Sefer HaChinuch 84
  84. Based on an article by Rabbi Shraga Simmons, Aish.com.
  85. Deut. 20:19
  86. See Rabbeinu Yona – Avot 1:14
  87. Avot 3:22