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. He took a branch to Brooklyn Botanic Garden, where he was told it was a mulberry tree.
Tuesday, July 31, 2012
"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.
Today, a black metal staircase wraps partly around the tree, and a beige wheelchair-accessible elevator stands beside it. The tree looks perfectly happy, right there in front of the door.
"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. In New York City, where space is tight and the option to build out in another direction generally does not exist, that means friendly neighborhood foliage can present an especially hard challenge.
"It's an extraordinary reminder of the kind of spiritual consciousness people need to be able to sustain, particularly in urban settings," said Rabbi Saul J. Berman, an associate professor of Jewish studies at Yeshiva University. "You see this tree and the way it's being guarded, and suddenly you realize there's something going on here besides just human needs."
This broader consideration, however, does not always come cheaply, as Mr. Wieder can attest to, or easily.
Others have wrapped more than just a staircase around a tree in the name of keeping it alive — like, for example, an entire building.
At Shloimy's Bake Shoppe on 12th Avenue in Brooklyn, where flaky perfection can be found in the form of hand-rolled rugelach, there is a glass enclosure toward the back, right behind a giant oven and stacks of baking trays. Inside this glass box, which is open to the sky, is a berry tree.
"When we bought this place, we thought we would build all the way back, and then it became summer," said Joe Leiberman, whose family owns the bakery. "We saw it was a fruit tree, and we changed all the plans."
Interpretations may vary, but several rabbis, including Rabbi Berman, Rabbi Mayer Schiller and Rabbi Gavriel Zinner, who has written more than two dozen books on Jewish law and tradition, say this practice emerged from a passage in Deuteronomy: Even in wartime, one should not chop down your enemies' fruit trees. There are also Talmudic sources, some said. And a mystical document called the Will of Rabbi Yehudah HaChosid, which dates back nearly 1,000 years and tends to hold more sway in Hasidic communities, took it further.
"He very cryptically asserted that it's really dangerous to cut down a fruit-bearing tree because you're tampering with God's property," Rabbi Berman said. "And if you want to tamper with God's property, be cautious."
Caution might also be advised to those left to deal with pre-existing fruit trees.
On a piping hot afternoon last week in Borough Park, a woman in a long black skirt struggled to get a stroller down the front stoop of her sister's house. The double-wide buggy was empty and the stairs were tidy, yet the woman faced a distinct challenge: The steps extended from the house sideways at roughly a 45-degree angle to avoid a tree directly in front of the doorway.
"They are fruit trees," the woman said of the tree in her path and another nearby, protruding from a brick shelter that housed the building's trash cans. "That's why they made the steps crooked, because they didn't want to take it down."
She jerked the buggy awkwardly to the left, then the right, before sighing and releasing her grip. She watched as the stroller bounced to the sidewalk.
All of this does not mean that exceptions cannot be made, said Rabbi Zinner, sitting in his cozy wood-paneled library last week surrounded by volumes and volumes of worn leather books. And if a tree is a danger to people, he continued, it can certainly go. A few years back, he said, he received a call from members of an Orthodox community north of New York City asking what they should do about a fruit tree that was attracting bears to an area where children played. He said they could chop it down.
"We have to respect a tree," Rabbi Zinner said. "But we have to have respect for human beings, also."
Though some groups take this prohibition more seriously, there are communities where stories circulate about tragedy or hardship, like a lost business or a sick child, befalling those who take the restriction lightly, and those can have staying power.
"It is a fear," Rabbi Schiller said of the attitude in certain groups. "A mystical fear of mystical forces."
Asked about his personal approach to the subject, he said, "I try to maintain the traditions of my community." And besides, he added, "why take a chance?"
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