the canopy of a tall tree, seen from below
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Trees, humans, and the City of San Francisco: A Tu B’Shevat warning

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In the laws of warfare, the Torah directs, “When you lay siege to a city and wage war, you must not destroy its trees … for is a tree of the field a human who will come against you in the siege?” (Deut. 20:19)

And in the laws of the City and County of San Francisco, rogue pruning of the trees can result in a $14,000 fine, as I recently discovered in dealing with the Department of Public Works regarding some trees in front of our synagogue, Congregation Adath Israel.

The literal meaning of the Biblical verse is a rhetorical question implying that a human is nothing like a tree of the field. But according to the midrash, the verse can be understood to say just the opposite — that a tree is, in a certain sense, a human!

How is it possible that people are like trees? The Talmud (Taanit 7a) explains that a fruit-bearing tree is analogous to a person of good character whose “fruits” (their teachings and actions) are beneficial to others.

It was our concern for humans, and disregard for trees, that led to our fine from the city.

Last August, we were concerned that the sidewalk outside our building was becoming a hazard.  Falling leaves made the sidewalk slippery; it seemed like an accident waiting to happen.  Branches were beginning to impact the overhead wires, and we were concerned about what that could lead to. 

In 2016 San Francisco voters transferred responsibility for street trees to the city — so I called 311. They checked the schedule and told me that our street was due for tree trimming … in a few years. Since we couldn’t wait, I requested that our gardener trim the trees.

But he cut off too much, leaving the trees leafless. Unbeknownst to me, it was illegal to do this.  How did I find out? Just before Rosh Hashanah, I received a letter from the city with photos documenting the incident — and assessing us a $14,000 fine. We crafted an extensive response and appealed the fine.

Our day in court followed. DPW made its case before a hearing officer, and each speaker on our side had three minutes. I spoke, as did a few congregants. We explained that we never intended to harm the trees, just protect people; that we couldn’t have anticipated that the gardener would excessively prune them; and that our small congregation can’t afford such a heavy fine. After the hearing, we were told to expect a decision in several weeks.

I was very impressed with DPW’s thorough presentation and learned a lot from it. If all the city’s departments ran as well as this one, San Francisco would be a very well-run city. After reflecting on the presentation, which stated that the most important thing to them isn’t the money but tree preservation, I proposed that Adath Israel do several things in lieu of the fine.

First, we informed our membership what happened and what one needs to know about care for street trees and trees on one’s property that are within 10 feet of the public right-of-way.

We are also informing the Northern California Board of Rabbis about the city’s tree regulations, and asking that they share the information with all the synagogues in our city.

And finally, we proposed that we would let you, the readers of J. The Jewish News of Northern California, know about the seriousness and importance of San Francisco’s tree regulations, as a public service and in honor of Tu B’Shevat (the Jewish New Year of the Trees, which this year falls on Feb. 6), to inform the larger Jewish community.

Hopefully the city will accept our public teshuvah (repentance) and forgo the fine.

So remember, before doing anything to either a street tree or a tree located on your property within 10 feet of the public right-of-way, check the DPW tree website at sfpublicworks.org/trees.

Rabbi Joel Landau
Rabbi Joel Landau

Rabbi Joel Landau is the spiritual leader of Adath Israel in San Francisco. He can be reached at [email protected].