Question: Is there a prohibition to uproot a fruit tree and is there a prohibition or danger involved in uprooting a non-fruit-bearing tree?
Answer: The Torah states (Devarim 20) regarding a city besieged by the Jewish nation at a time of war, “When you shall besiege a city for a long time in making war against it to take it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them, for you may eat from them but you shall not cut it down; for is the tree of the field a man that it should be besieged by you?” This means that the Torah forbids uprooting a tree. The Torah refers to a fruit tree, as the verse states, “For you may eat from them.” Indeed, our Sages derived that the prohibition to destroy a tree applies only to a fruit tree.
The Prohibition to Destroy a Tree in Any Way
Our Sages taught in the Sifri: “I would have thought that it is merely forbidden to destroy a tree by wielding an ax against it, how do we know that it is even forbidden to divert a stream which waters it away from the tree in order to dry it out? This is why the verse states, ‘You shall not destroy its trees’, which means through any method.” This means that one may not bring about the destruction of a tree by either actually chopping it down with an ax or by depriving it of its usual irrigation so that it dries out.
Indeed, the Rambam (Chapter 6 of Hilchot Melachim) states: “One may not chop down a fruit tree or withhold a water source from it so that it dries up, as the verse states, ‘You shall not destroy its trees’. This does not only apply during a siege; rather, one who chops down a fruit tree in a destructive manner at any given time is liable for lashes.”
Based on the words of the great Poskim, this prohibition of uprooting a fruit tree is an actual Torah prohibition, as the Rambam writes that one who chops down a fruit tree in a destructive manner is liable for lashes, which means that one has transgressed a Torah prohibition by doing so.
The Prohibition of Being Destructive Regarding Other Things
The Rambam continues and writes that not only does one who chops down trees transgress the prohibition of being destructive, rather, one who breaks vessels, tears clothing, demolishes a building, plugs up a creek, or wastes food in a destructive manner transgresses this sin of “You shall not destroy”.
Nevertheless, the law regarding uprooting a fruit tree is more severe than breaking vessels or demolishing a building and the like, for whereas with regards to other things, as long as there is a necessity to do so, it is permissible to break vessels, plug up a creek, demolish a building, or uproot a non-fruit-bearing tree, regarding a fruit tree on the other hand, it is forbidden to cut it down unless specific criteria are met, as we shall discuss in the following Halacha, G-d-willing.