By Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow
After a nice hot kiddush, people like to stand outside of shul and schmooze. It can be tiring and hard on one’s feet. It would be great to find something to lean on. This summer, in my neighborhood in Far Rockaway, there may be some new options for those schmoozers.
After all the devastation that Sandy caused, few people focused on the havoc it wreaked on the local vegetation. As many have completed the work on their homes, they have found that they must start their garden anew. One Sandy victim and homeowner recently made a plea on the Five Towns Shuls e‑mail list for donations of extra shrubs. It can be expensive replacing an entire garden. Apparently, evergreens suffered the worst fate. Still, the flood affected many different types of plants and trees. During the winter, no one paid attention to the deciduous trees without leaves, because that is exactly what was expected of them. Now that spring has passed, it has become obvious that some trees were a casualty of the storm. Dead trees may have some special leniencies in halachah, as we recently learned in the daf.
The Gemara states unequivocally that one may not make use of trees on Shabbos. The Gemara explicitly states that leaning on a tree is considered using it (Eiruvin 100a). Those schmoozers pining for a place to lean cannot use a tree. A light or utility pole would be a good alternative. Friendly souls gratuitously provided the public with two benches on Reads Lane which are a permissible alternative to trees. They really spruce up the area.
The Gemara notes that there is a contradiction in the Tanaic writings whether the prohibition of using a tree on Shabbos applies to dead trees. One source says clearly that dead trees may be utilized on Shabbos, while the other one clearly states that they may not. The questioner in the Gemara was stumped. The Gemara initially reconciles the sources by suggesting that a tree that is truly dead may indeed be used on Shabbos. However, a tree which just appears to be dead but will eventually sprout new leaves and branches may not be used on Shabbos. Many trees in my neighborhood that were assumed dead have just now started to sprout new leaves. The delayed generation is mostly due to Sandy but wasn’t helped by a cold and dry March. Still, the Gemara states that the aforementioned solution is not viable. Both sources were specifically referring to dead trees. A tree that just appears dead cannot be what either source was referring to. So this attempted answer just doesn’t stick.
The Gemara therefore offers another resolution to get to the root of the issue. Technically, dead trees may be utilized on Shabbos. However, during the winter it is not readily apparent which trees are alive (except for the brown evergreens which can still be spotted all around Sandy-affected areas). Consequently, if someone leans on a dead tree in winter, an onlooker might assume that the poor sap is violating the rabbinic restriction of not leaning on trees. Therefore, as a rule one may not lean on any tree in winter; he must leave it alone. However, during summer it is easy to distinguish between live trees and dead trees; therefore one may lean on a dead tree.
Before the schmoozers rush to use this leniency, they have to realize that they may be barking up the wrong tree. The Gemara notes that Rav visited a certain locale and told the people there that they may not use any trees on Shabbos, dead or alive. The Gemara explains that in that locale, Torah knowledge was scarce and they couldn’t see the forest for the trees. Therefore, Rav wanted to make a rule that would be easily understandable.
Now that we all have logged many hours in fine Torah institutions, are we better than the people of that locale? Can we run rings around them? The Shulchan Aruch says no! The Shulchan Aruch (336:1) simply states, “One may not climb a tree, whether living or not.” The Shaar Hatziyun explains that this ruling is because the Shulchan Aruch is accepting Rav’s stringency. Leaning on a dead tree is rather shady. However, the Mishnah Berurah notes that the Rosh was of the opinion that as a matter of practical halachah, we can lean on dead trees during the summer. Rav never intended for his ruling to branch out to other locales. The Rosh finds supports for his view from a statement a few lines later in the Gemara that says that nowadays we can be lenient. The true meaning behind the statement is debated by other Rishonim.
Since everyone agrees that according to the letter of the law one may lean on dead trees in the summer, perhaps it wouldn’t be going too far out on a limb to say that one can rely on the Rosh’s opinion. v
Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead. He can be contacted at ASebrow@gmail.com.