Beit Midrash

  • Shabbat and Holidays
  • Tu Bishvat
To dedicate this lesson

What is a Tree?

What Bracha do we make on fruit? What is fruit? What is a tree and what is not? More questions for Tu Bishvat and for everyday... and answers.


Rabbi Yirmiyohu Kaganoff

13 Shvat 5768
Question : Eggplants grow on a woody stem. Does this make the eggplant a tree and prohibit the fruit that grows during its first three years as orlah or not? Although this idea may seem strange to most people, at least one prominent posek held that eggplant is always orlah and you may never eat it for this reason!

Question : What is the correct bracha to recite when smelling carnations, lilies, or mint?

Question : What is the correct bracha to recite before eating papaya, cane sugar, or raspberries?

Question : May someone plant tomatoes in his vineyard in Eretz Yisroel?

Although these questions seem completely unrelated, each query revolves around the same issue: What is the halachic definition of a tree?

It is usually easy to identify a tree. We know the obvious characteristics that define oak and apple trees, and it is clear that trees differ from plants that grow in a vegetable patch. However, from a halachic standpoint it is not always obvious whether many of Hashem’s botanical wonders are trees or not.

It is critical to determine what fits the definition of a tree in order to clarify the following halachic issues:

1. What bracha one recites on its fruit.
2. What bracha one recites on its fragrance.
3. Whether the prohibition of orlah applies to its fruit.
4. How severe is the prohibition to destroy it (bal tashchis).
5. There are several agricultural halachos concerning kilayim, shmittah, and maaser, all of which are relevant only in Eretz Yisroel.

Let us clarify these five areas of halacha before we discuss the main focus of our article, in order to understand the ramifications of why we must know which plants are considered trees.

What bracha one recites on its fruit.
As the Mishnah teaches, the bracha before eating the fruit of a tree is borei pri ha’eitz, whereas the bracha on fruit that grows from the ground such as peas, beans, cucumbers, and melons is borei pri ha’adamah. (The botanical definition of a fruit is the fleshy part [technically, the developed ovary] of the plant that nourishes the developing seed. Many of the foods that we colloquially call "vegetables," are in reality "fruits of the ground.") Thus, it is important to ascertain how certain fruits such as bananas, papayas, and berries grow in order to determine whether they grow on what is halachically classified as a tree, in which case their bracha is ha’eitz, or whether the plant upon which they grow is not a tree and the correct bracha is ha’adamah.

What bracha one recites on its fragrance.
Chazal established five different brachos on fragrances, one of which is "borei atzei besamim," "He who created pleasant-smelling wood (or trees)," and another, "borei isvei besamim," "He who created pleasant-smelling grasses." Just as one must recite the correct bracha on a food before eating it, so it is important to recite the correct bracha on a fragrance before smelling it. We will see later that whether the closest English translation of atzei besamim is pleasant-smelling wood or pleasant-smelling trees depends on an interesting dispute.

Determining whether the correct bracha is atzei besamim or isvei besamim is even more significant than determining whether the correct bracha is borei pri ha’eitz or borei pri ha’adamah for the following reason: If one recites borei pri ha’adamah on a fruit that should have been borei pri ha’eitz, one fulfills the minimal requirement bidi’eved (after the fact) and should not recite an additional bracha of borei pri ha’eitz. The reason for this is that every tree grows from the ground - thus praising Hashem for "creating the fruit of the ground" when eating a fruit that grew on a tree is not inaccurate. This is why someone who is uncertain whether a certain fruit is "of the tree" or "of the ground" should recite borei pri ha’adamah before eating it.

However, when in doubt whether to recite atzei besamim or isvei besamim on a specific fragrance, one may not recite either bracha. This is because trees and grasses are mutually exclusive categories - if something is a grass, it is not a tree and vice versa. Thus, reciting the bracha praising Hashem for creating pleasant-smelling grasses before smelling a tree is a bracha l’vatalah, a bracha said in vain, because it is inaccurate. When someone is uncertain whether a plant is considered a tree or a grass, he should recite a third bracha, borei minei besamim, "He who created types of pleasant-smelling items," even though this is certainly not the optimal bracha on this fragrance. This is equivalent to reciting the bracha of shehakol before eating an apple. One has fulfilled the mitzvah, albeit not in the optimal way, since an apple "deserves" a more specific praise.

Whether the prohibition of orlah applies to its fruit.
The Torah prohibits eating fruit that grew within the first three years of a tree’s life. Thus, if a particular plant is a tree, the fruit produced in its first three years is prohibited; if it is not a tree, the fruit may be eaten immediately.

Although orlah is an agricultural mitzvah, it applies outside Eretz Yisroel. However, there is a major difference between orlah on fruits that grow in Eretz Yisroel and those that grow in chutz la’aretz. In chutz la’aretz only fruit that is definitely orlah is prohibited, and one may eat fruit that is questionably orlah. This fact has major halachic ramifications. There is also a mitzvah of re’vai that requires redeeming the fruit of the fourth year. Ashkenazim follow the ruling that in chutz la’aretz the laws of re’vai apply only to grapes (Rama and Gra, Yoreh Deah 294:7), whereas Sefardim require the laws of re’vai on all fruit trees.

How severe is the prohibition to destroy it (ba'al tashchis).
Destroying a fruit-bearing tree without gaining benefit in the process is prohibited min HaTorah. Although one may not destroy anything without purpose, the Rambam rules that destroying a tree is a more serious prohibition (Hilchos Melachim 6:8, 10). Some poskim explain that only destroying a tree is prohibited min HaTorah, whereas destroying other items, including plants, is prohibited only mid'rabbanan, and therefore would have some leniencies.

There are several agricultural halachos concerning kilayim in a vineyard
(kilei hakerem), shmittah, and maaser, all of which are relevant only in Eretz Yisroel. There are also halachos related to grafting one species onto the stock of another (harkavas ilan), which applies equally in Eretz Yisroel and in Chutz LaAretz.

One may not plant vegetables in a vineyard in Eretz Yisroel because of the prohibition of kilai hakerem, mixing species in a vineyard (Rambam, Hilchos Kilayim 5:7), although one may plant trees in a vineyard (Rambam, Hilchos Kilayim 5:6). In addition, if something is categorized as an edible plant, then one must be careful whether one plants it close to another edible plant because of kilai zera’im, mixing species when planting. This mitzvah does not apply to trees.

How one determines the year in which a plant grows differs between trees and plants. The cut-off point for determining the years of fruits is usually determined by Tu BiShvat, whereas for plants it is Rosh Hashanah. This affects the halachos of maaser and of shmittah.

In addition, which year of the shmittah/maaser cycle a fruit belongs to is determined by whether its chanatah, which refers to a stage early in the fruit’s development, took place before Tu BiShvat or after; in a plant, it is determined by whether it is harvested before Rosh Hashanah. Furthermore, a plant that grew uncultivated during the shmittah year would be prohibited because of the prohibition of "sefichin," whereas the fruit of a tree would not be affected by this concern.

We now understand why it is important to determine whether a particular plant qualifies as a tree or not.

The Random House dictionary I have on my desk defines a tree as, "a plant having a permanently woody main stem or trunk, ordinarily growing to a considerable height, and usually developing branches at some distance from the ground." If we include the qualifiers, "ordinarily" and "usually," then this definition excludes a grape vine which lacks height if not supported and does not develop branches some distance from the ground. Since we know that halacha considers grapes to be fruits of the tree, this definition will not suffice. On the other hand, if we broaden the definition of "tree" to include all plants that have a "permanently woody stem or trunk" we will not only include grape vines, but also probably include eggplant, pineapple, and lavender which all have woody stems. On the other hand, several plants, such as the date palm and papaya, fit the Random House definition as a tree and yet grow very differently from typical trees. Are all of these plants trees?

Having demonstrated that the dictionary definition of tree is insufficient for our purposes, let us explore sources that may give us a halachic definition. The Gemara (Berachos 40a) states that one recites a borei pri ha’eitz if "when you remove the fruit, the gavza remains and produces more fruit, but if the gavza does not remain, the bracha is not borei pri ha’eitz, but borei pri ha’adamah". What is the "gavza" that remains to bear more fruit from one year to the next?

We find three interpretations concerning this among the major commentaries. Rashi translates gavza as branch, meaning that any plant whose branches fall off one year and then grow again the next is not considered a tree, even if the root and trunk (or stem) remain from one year to the next. There are berries whose stem remains from one year to next, but whose branches fall off during the winter (Tehillah LeDavid, Chapter 203). According to Rashi, the correct bracha on these berries is ha’adamah.

A second opinion, that of Tosafos, explains that "gavza" is the trunk or stem of the plant that remains from one year to the next and produces fruit (Ritva Sukkah 35a). A plant whose root remains from one year to the next, but not its stem, is not a tree.

Many perennial fruits do not have a trunk that remains from year to year. (A perennial is a plant whose root remains from one year to the next and grows each year without replanting.) A banana plant is a perennial whose entire structure above ground dies each year and then grows again the next year from the root. According to Tosafos, bananas are not trees but plants; therefore their bracha is ha’adamah, not ha’eitz, and there is no orlah prohibition.

A third opinion, that of the Rosh and the Tur (Orach Chayim, Chapter 203), explains that any perennial is considered a tree and its bracha is ha’eitz. If the plant must be replanted each year (i.e., it is an annual) to produce fruit, then the bracha is ha’adamah, not ha’eitz. According to this understanding, the correct bracha on strawberries and bananas is also ha’eitz since they are both perennials (not annuals), whereas according to the other opinions, its bracha is ha’adamah.

The Shulchan Aruch and the Rama (Orach Chayim 302:2) rule that one recites borei pri ha’eitz if there is some type of stem that remains from year to year and produces fruit, but that the bracha is ha’adamah on perennials whose stem dies each year. However, it is disputed whether the reason we recite ha’adamah is because the Shulchan Aruch concluded like Tosafos, or because it is uncertain whether the bracha should be ha’eitz (like the Rosh and the Tur), or ha’adamah (like Tosafos), and we recite ha’adamah because of this uncertainty (Maamar Mordechai 203:3). There are several halachic ramifications that result from this question as I will explain later.

Is the definition of a tree the same for the halachos of orlah and kilayim as it is for brachos?

Tosafos (Berachos 40a) cites a Yerushalmi (Kilayim 5:7) that something may not be a tree for the laws of brachos and yet will be considered a tree for the laws of kilayim, whereas the Ritva (Sukkah 35a) contends that the definition of the Gemara (Brachos 40a) for brachos applies to orlah as well. Tosafos concludes that the bracha on most perennial berries is ha’adamah because the bush does not remain from year to year, even though the bushes have the status of trees concerning kilayim and may be planted in a vineyard.

Are there any other factors that define a tree other than what the Gemara mentioned? Must a plant grow tall to be considered a tree?

The Magen Avraham (203:1) rules that even if a tree grows very short, the correct bracha on its fruits and berries is borei pri ha’eitz. However, the prevalent minhag is to make a pri ha’adamah on berries that grow on plants which are less than three tefachim tall (about nine or ten inches), even though they meet all the other requirements of trees. The reason for the minhag is that a plant with such short stature is not considered significant enough to be a tree (Chayei Odom 51:9; Mishnah Berurah 203:3).

However, we should note that although the custom is to recite ha’adamah on the fruit of these small perennial bushes, the fruit grown in the first three years of the tree’s life is nonetheless prohibited because of orlah (Ritva, Sukkah 35a). Cranberries would fit into this category since they are perennial, yet grow on the ground of a bog. Thus, orlah applies to them, yet their bracha is borei pri ha’adamah.

What is the correct bracha to recite on raspberries? Does the prohibition of orlah apply to them? If so, are any raspberries permitted? (By the way, one should be aware that raspberries are often highly infested with mites and thrips. Please verify how to check them for insects before eating them. However, this article is about their status as fruit.)

To answer the questions I just raised, we must first understand how raspberries grow. Raspberries are perennials that produce new shoots directly out of their root system every year. The shoot does not produce fruit the first year, produces fruit the second year, and then declines. Commercially, the shoots are trimmed after the first time they produce to strengthen the plant. (It should be pointed out that some varieties of raspberry grow like a regular bush. These varieties are trees for all halachos. It is also not uncommon to find both types of raspberries growing out of the same root - that is, a plant has a bush that remains from year to year, but also produces shoots that stop reproducing after their second year. Our subject is the more common variety where the entire plant produces shoots.)

Is the raspberry plant considered a tree or not? If it is a tree, its fruit would be ha’eitz, but then its fruit should be orlah, since the shoots are never four years old! If the raspberry plant is not a tree, than its bracha is ha’adamah and there should be no orlah issue. On the other hand, we pointed out instances where the bracha on the fruit is ha’adamah and yet it is prohibited because of orlah.

The Maharsham (Shu't # 196) was asked this shaylah, and he compared raspberry to eggplant, which was the subject of extensive early halachic literature.

Some early poskim rule that the eggplant is considered a tree because it has a woody stem. According to this approach, all eggplants are prohibited because of orlah since the plant never lasts four years to produce permitted fruit (Shu't Radbaz #966, quoting Kaftor VaFerach). The Radbaz assumed initially that the eggplant is a tree and that its fruit is prohibited as orlah. In the last paragraph of a lengthy responsum, he reports that when he arrived in Eretz Yisroel he discovered that even the most G-d-fearing tzaddikim ate eggplant, upon which basis he concluded that it cannot possibly be orlah. Early poskim recorded that the Arizal, Rav Chayim Vital, and others ate eggplant and cite this as proof that it is permitted. But why is it not orlah?

The Radbaz explains that eggplant is not orlah because it produces fruit in its first year and no tree produces fruit so quickly. Thus, he introduces a new defining factor for a tree: that it does not produce fruit during its first year of being planted (from seed).

Other poskim suggest a different reason why the eggplant is not prohibited as orlah: because its fruit becomes inferior the second year after it begins producing. According to this opinion, a tree’s fruits should improve in its first few years, and if the fruit of a species deteriorates while the plant is still young, this demonstrates that this plant is not a tree (Alshich, quoted by Birkei Yosef, Yoreh Deah 294:4). This halachic approach also modifies the definition of a tree.

The Chazon Ish (Orlah 12:3) is dissatisfied with both of these approaches because there is no source in Chazal for this definition of a tree. However, he agrees that eggplants are not prohibited because of orlah for a very different reason. He contends that orlah can only ban the produce of a tree for its first three years but cannot ban the species completely. Therefore, a species that produces fruit for no more than three years cannot be a tree whose fruit is orlah. Instead, we must conclude that this plant is not a tree and therefore its fruit is not orlah.

It is universally accepted that eggplants are not orlah. Since two of these reasons also apply to raspberries, most poskim conclude that there is no orlah problem with regard to them either. Many poskim, however, rule that one should not use the fruits of the first three years after planting the root.

There are two other reasons cited to exempt raspberries from orlah. One reason, cited by the Ritva (Sukkah 35a) is because the shoot does not produce repeat crops and therefore it is not considered to be a tree (Shu't Divrei Malkiel 5:143). Another reason some do not consider it a tree is because its physical appearance is significantly different from that of a tree (Aruch HaShulchan, Yoreh Deah 294:18).

While nibbling on the fruit this Tu B’Shvat, we should think through the different halachic and hashkafah ramifications that affect us. Man himself is compared to a tree (see Rashi, Bamidbar 13:20); and his responsibility to observe orlah, terumos, and maasros are intimately bound with the year count that depends on Tu B’shvat. As Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch explains, by observing Hashem’s command to refrain from the fruits of his own property, one learns to practice the self-restraint necessary to keep all pleasure within the limits of morality.

The author thanks Rabbi Shmuel Silinsky for his tremendous assistance in providing agricultural information for this article.

This article was originally published in the American edition of Yated Neeman

This Shiur is published also at Rabbi Kaganof's site
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