“You may not destroy its tree… and you shall not cut it down!” (Devarim 20:19)
It is a negative commandment that when besieging a city in time of war one may not cut down the trees of that city in order to cause pain and distress to the people of that city. About this it says “You may not destroy its tree… and you shall not cut it down!”. Also included in this prohibition is the interdiction to cause any wanton waste or destruction. Examples of this are burning or tearing or smashing a useful vessel or garment. It applies to any similar acts of destruction.
The root of this commandment is well-known, as it is in order to teach our souls to love goodness and achievement and to cleave to these things. By doing so, goodness will cleave to us, and all evil and destruction will keep far away from us. This is the way of the pious people and the men of deeds who love peace and rejoice in the goodness of the creations and draw them near to the Torah. Such people will not even destroy one grain of mustard in this world, and will be upset to see any waste or destruction, and if they can, they will save everything from destruction. Evil people on the other hand, are close relatives of the destructive angels, who enjoy the destruction of the world, and thus destroy themselves.
Amongst the laws of this commandment are that the Torah only forbade the cutting down of fruit trees if it is done in a destructive fashion, but if they are cut down for a purpose it is permitted. Examples of cases where it is permitted for a purpose are if the wood of the tree is very expensive and he wishes to sell it, or when it is causing him a financial loss to leave it if it is damaging other trees which are worth more than it or it is causing damage in other people’s property. Barren trees, however, may be cut down even when it is not needed. Any fruit tree which is so old that it only brings forth a small quantity of fruit which are not worth the bother, may be cut down.
Chazal said that one who destroys something out of anger, is like one who has served an idol. This is the way of the evil inclination who one day will tell you to do something and if you listen then the next day he tells you to go and serve idols. This means to say that every person is obligated to attack his evil inclination and conquer his desires, so that the intelligent soul overcomes the desiring soul.
This commandment applies in all places and at all times, both to men and to women. One who destroys fruit trees has transgressed this commandment and is punished with lashes. For the destruction of any other thing which is not explicit in the Torah one receives rabbinical lashes.