In this article we will endeavor to define what is halachically considered “pri ha’etz,” the fruit of a tree, and “pri ha’adama,” the fruit of the ground. In order to do so, we need to categorize what is considered a tree and what is considered a plant. These definitions have many ramifications in halacha, three of which we will focus on over the course of the article.
- Hilchot Berachot — One recites the beracha of borei pri ha’etz when eating the fruit of a tree and borei pri ha’adama on a vegetable that grows from the ground. With regard to the beracha of smelling (besamim), one recites borei atzei besamim on fragrance from a tree and borei isvei besamim on fragrance from a plant or bush.
- Hilchot Ma’aser – The beginning of the tithing year for fruits of the tree is on Tu Bishvat, whereas the new year for produce that grows from the ground begins on Rosh Hashana. Since one may not tithe fruits from one year for another, it is important to know whether a certain species is classified as a fruit or vegetable. For example, one may not tithe fruit whose chanata was in Kislev or Tevet with fruit whose chanata was after Tu Bishvat. By contrast, this would not be a problem for a vegetable, where the year is generally determined either based on whether it was totally ripe or whether it was picked before or after Rosh Hashana.
- Hilchot Orla – The Torah forbids eating fruit of a tree for the first three years of the tree’s growth. This prohibition applies only to trees and not to produce that grows from the ground.
One major source relevant to defining what is considered a tree and what is a plant (and accordingly how to define fruits and vegetables) is found in Masechet Berachot in connection with hilchot berachot. The Mishna states that one who erroneously recited the beracha of borei pri ha’adama over a fruit (although he should have said borei pri ha’etz) has nevertheless fulfilled his obligation. But if one erroneously recites borei pri ha’etz over a vegetable (for which he should have said borei pri ha’adama), he has not fulfilled his obligation.
The Gemara on this Mishna quotes the opinion of Rav Yehuda that wheat is considered to be a type of tree. However, the Gemara concludes that regarding the laws of berachot even Rav Yehuda would not say that wheat is considered a tree, as the rule is that borei pri ha’eitz is recited in cases where “when one removes the produce, the gavza remains and reproduces fruit, but when one picks the produce and the gavza does not remain and reproduce,” one does not recite borei pri ha’etz.
Another rule is given by the Tosefta in Masechet Kilayim. “This is the general rule: Anything that produces fruit from its stem is considered a vegetable, while anything that does not produce from its stem is considered a tree.”
There are three main approaches in the Rishonim as to how to understand the rules mentioned in the Gemara and the Tosefta.
First approach – The Rosh
The Rosh explains that the defining factor of a tree is that it remains from year to year without having to be replanted annually. In contrast, anything that must be replanted each year is considered a vegetable. It would seem that the Rosh translates the word “gavza” in the Gemara as a tree that remains from year to year.
The Rosh understands that the Tosefta adds another rule. In order to be considered a tree, a certain form is necessary. If the produce sprouts from the stem, it cannot be considered a tree. Hence, the Rosh holds that in order to be regarded halachically as a tree, two conditions must be met.
- It needs to exist perennially.
- It must have the form of a tree such that the fruit does not sprout from the stem or the trunk.
Second approach – The Geonim
The Geonim also hold that a tree is defined as existing perennially. If, on the other hand, the species grows anew from the roots each year, it is considered a plant. The Geonim seem to translate the word “gavza” as the trunk. According to the Geonim, the Tosefta is not adding a new rule but is a further clarification of the Gemara in Berachot: If the fruit sprouts directly from the stem, it is indicative of the fact that there is no trunk, and hence it is not considered a tree.
The Geonim elaborate further on their opinion using the examples of a banana and eggplant.
“Any species that sprouts fruit from its stem is considered a plant, and any fruit that sprouts from its tree is considered a tree. Concerning these Muzi bananas (bananas in turkey), since the tree dies completely and it regrows the next year from the roots, we recite borei pri ha’adama. Similarly, this is the law regarding eggplant and sesame plant.”
Since, they explain, the trunk does not remain from year to year in these species, they are considered plants or vegetables. The problem is, though, that in reality, the banana and egg-plant stem do remain from year to year. How, then, can the Geonim specifically mention these species as not being trees? In order to understand this a further examination of how banana trees and eggplant plants grow is necessary. The banana species has a thick trunk that grows new branches each year, and the bananas sprout from these branches.
However unlike a regular tree, at the end of each year the branch dries up completely and never produces fruit again. Rather, the next year the trunk grows a new branch which sprouts fruit. The eggplant has a steady stem that remains for years. However it is unlike a regular tree in that the first two years it sprouts quality fruit but thereafter it produces a lesser quality and quantity of fruit. Therefore, the farmers generally cut the stem after it has become weakened in order to allow it to grow anew and once again yield higher quality fruit, as if it were a new tree.
Based on this background we can understand the opinion of the Geonim. Regarding the banana tree, it is the branch that is considered the trunk, and it dries up each year. Therefore, this is not defined as a species whose trunk remains from year to year. Similarly, the eggplant stem is not considered a trunk that lasts perennially, as it is cut down in order to grow again. Although this is not a natural process, since this is the accepted way of growing the plant, this is how we define it halachically as well.
Third Approach – Rashi
Rashi explains the word “gavza” as the branch of the tree. According to Rashi, any tree whose branches wither from season to season is not considered a tree, even if the trunk remains intact. Hence a tree only retains its status as such if both the trunk and branches remain intact from year to year.
In summary, the Rosh holds that as long as a species does not have to be replanted from year to year and has the shape of a tree it is considered a tree. Even if the trunk dies from year to year, it is still considered a tree. According to the Geonim, as long as the trunk does not wither it retains its status as a tree. According to Rashi, it is not sufficient for the trunk to remain intact, but rather the entire form of the tree, including the branches, needs to remain whole.
These three opinions are also mentioned in later discussions of the Acharonim. However, they dispute which Rishon actually holds each opinion. Some explain that the opinion of the Geonim is actually the same as that of the Rosh. Others hold that the opinion of the Geonim is the same as that presented as Rashi’s above. Yet others hold that the opinion ascribed to Rashi above is in fact that of the Geonim.
It is worthwhile in this context to mention the comment of the Maharal that due to the later generations’ lack of clarity, they sometimes have difficulty understanding the opinions of the Rishonim. This seems to be a very clear point in case.
The Root of the Argument
It seems that the argument between the Rishonim stems from the fact that a tree needs to have a certain physical form, but it is unclear what that precise form is. The Rosh holds that the defining factor of a tree is that it has a trunk, even if the trunk dies or withers after a year. The Geonim hold that the defining factor is that the trunk remain alive continually. This means that the tree has to be seen in actuality and not only in its potential. Finally, Rashi views the defining factor as the entire form of the tree, both trunk and branches, retaining its shape continually.
The practical ramification between these three approaches could be the halacha regarding a banana tree. According to the Rosh, since there is a physical trunk and the tree does not need to be replanted, it is considered a tree and the beracha would be borei pri ha’etz. According to Rashi, since the branch dies yearly, it is not a tree, and the beracha should be ha’adama. According to the Geonim, since the branch withers up every year, it is considered like the trunk that withers, and therefore it cannot be considered a tree. Hence, they too would hold that the bracha would be ha’adama.
The accepted halacha follows the opinion of the Geonim. Therefore, the Shulchan Aruch rules that the beracha over a banana is borei pri ha’adama, as opposed to the opinion of the Rosh who would recite ha’etz. However, one could argue that this does not definitively resolve the overall debate, as the rule concerning hilchot berachot is that if one said ha’adama on a fruit grown on a tree, it is valid. Thus, perhaps the Shulchan Aruch rules that one should say ha’adama only in order to cover all opinions, but not because the halacha is entirely in accordance with the opinion of the Geonim. Nevertheless, we may still be able to demonstrate that this is the accepted opinion from the laws of orla, as the Acharonim generally do not hold that the restrictions of orla apply to the eggplant, which according to the Rosh would be considered a tree.
An Exception to the Rule
The Yerushalmi also weighs in on our discussion with an interesting statement. “Rav Chiya bar Papa taught: That which stems from the trunk is considered a tree, and that which stems from the roots is considered a plant. But there is a contradiction as the cabbage grows from its trunk?” The Yerushalmi then responds as follows. “Here we are dealing with a certainty and here we are dealing with a doubt.”
The Vilna Gaon explains this cryptic Yerushalmi as follows: “We do not take into consideration the signs given (that the definition of a tree is where the fruits stem from the trunk and not the roots) unless there is a doubt, but a cabbage is certainly a vegetable.” The Gra understands that when one looks at a cabbage, one intuitively understands that it is a vegetable and not a fruit that grows from a tree, while the rule of the Yerushalmi that fruit sprouts from the trunk only applies in a case of doubt.
However, it is still unclear what is categorized as a doubt and what is a certainty. As the Chazon Ish writes: “Further study is needed as to the deciding factor that renders something definitively a vegetable. Perhaps some vegetables have a unique form that we do not find regarding fruits of the tree. This might apply where the species are leafy, but where vegetables are similar to fruits, we need these signs and rules.”
A good illustration of this issue is the halachic status of cabbage. According to our Sages, one recites borei pri ha’adama over cabbage, it is not subject to the restrictions of orla, and the laws of ma’aser follow the guidelines given for vegetables – yet the cabbage plant has a trunk, which should indicate according to the Geonim that it is classified as a tree.
When a Tree Produces Fruit in the First Year
As mentioned above, another species for which some uncertainty exists as to its status is eggplant. The main issue found in the poskim regarding the eggplant is whether the halachot of orla apply to it or not.
Since this species of plant only produces quality fruit during the first two years, if we define it as a tree and prohibit the fruit produced during its first three years of growth, the result is that there is a type of fruit that can never be eaten. The sefer Kaftor Vaferach rules that indeed this fruit is forbidden completely. He brings a proof from the Rosh that any species that does not need to be replanted yearly is considered a tree. One could similarly argue that according to the Geonim it is also considered a tree since the stem remains intact (at least without human intervention) for years. However, the Geonim specifically state (as quoted above) that it is not a tree, meaning that they obviously understand that human intervention is still considered in defining what remains intact if that is the way the species is usually grown.
The Radbaz suggests a different, more novel approach at the very end of a lengthy responsum on the subject. He writes: “I had a novel suggestion that we do not find any tree that bears fruit in its first year, hence the eggplant must not be a tree.” This rule is not mentioned anywhere in the Talmud, though, and the later Acharonim question whether the Radbaz, and Talmudic commentaries in general, have the authority to formulate new rules based on their understanding.
Two general approaches are offered to this question. One is posited by the sefer Rav Pe’alim in discussing the status of the papaya. The papaya tree grows very tall, but the trunk is hollow and no branches sprout from the trunk, though the fruit sprouts directly from it. The Papaya tree bears fruit within the first year and then has a lifespan of twenty-five years. Consequently, the novelty of the Radbaz would apply to the papaya tree as well. The Ben Ish Chai writes that one may rely on the novelty of the Radbaz, as he found in the sefer Machaneh Yisrael that the rule suggested by the Radbaz is actually found in a Tosefta: “I found in the manuscripts of the Mahari Chabila that he found in the Tosefta that anything that produces fruits in its first year is considered a vegetable and not a tree.” Accordingly, the Rav Pe’alim holds that the Radbaz’s rule is not new, but is in fact a Talmudic rule. The Chazon Ish also writes that the Yerushalmi cited above concerning cabbage is in fact testament to the Radbaz’s rule: “One can say that that which the Yerushalmi answers, “here we are dealing with a doubt and here we are dealing with a certainty,” means that the cabbage is definitely considered a vegetable, since the fruit sprouts immediately after it has been planted, which we do not find in trees.”
The second approach to understanding the Radbaz is assumed by Rav Moshe Levi in the sefer Birkat Hashem, where he writes a lengthy rebuttal of the Radbaz’s claim. He opines that the fact that an Acharon who lived three hundred years ago found one manuscript of a Tosefta that supports the claim does not make this a legitimate Talmudic source. Rav Levi understands argues that the Radbaz clearly suggested his chiddush based on his own logic that most trees do not bear fruit within the first year, and argues with this understanding that there is not sufficient evidence to accept it as the practical halacha on its own. However, one could argue in defense of the Radbaz that his understanding is similar to the Vilna Gaon’s understanding of the Yerushalmi that the rules are invoked only in cases where there is a doubt. But where it is clear that the species involved is a vegetable through logic, there is no need to look at the general rule to ascertain its status.
Exceptions to the Rule from a Philosophical Perspective
Every exception to the rule comes to teach us about the rule itself (Beraita of Rabbi Yishmael)
We see from the above discussion that rules do not always accurately reflect the halacha in every case, and sometimes there are exceptions. This perspective is reinforced by the statement of Rabbi Yishmael above, which we recite every morning in Shahcharit, where he teaches us that when the Torah presents a halacha and then gives an exception to the rule, one should not view this exception as being unusual, but rather as teaching us about the normative rule itself.
This idea of Rabbi Yishmael provides us with an important insight into the proper approach to learning Torah. Our brains generally like to categorize objects, people, and ideas, as this makes it easier for us to understand them. A good teacher will consequently often group things together using general rules and principles to enable the students to better remember the content. With such a perspective, the exception to the rule will need to be remembered independently, which engenders additional effort, and it has no real importance. However, Rabbi Yishmael teaches us that this is not necessarily the case. The Torah is greater than any specific rule and crosses a multitude of disciplines and fields. Therefore, the exception to the rule highlights that the rule itself is only part of a bigger picture. Similarly, it is logical within this paradigm that rules are often formulated only for the student who is in doubt, but where the reality is clear, the rule does not necessarily need to be applied. We find an example of this in a comment of the Pri Megadim regarding the Talmudic rule of tatai gavar concerning Kashrut. When two foods touch, one cold and one hot, Shmuel rules that the bottom food has the greater impact in transferring taste to the upper one, while Rav holds that the upper food impacts upon the lower one. The Talmud rules in accordance with the opinion of Shmuel that tatai gevar, the lower food transfers more taste to the upper one. The Pri Megadim writes that this is only true where there is some doubt, but where it is clear in reality that the upper food impacted the lower food, the halacha may rule that the lower one is also impacted.
Although this line of thinking might be considered dangerous, perhaps the philosophical idea at play here highlights that the Torah is greater than any particular rule, and Torah authorities must delve into the words of our Holy Torah and those of Chazal as well as at the reality of the world in front of them before coming to any halachic conclusion. As the Talmud states, “ein l’dayan ela ma she’einav ro’ot,” “a judge can only pass judgment on what he sees in front of him.”
 Shulchan Aruch, O.C. 202-203
 Shulchan Aruch, O.C. 216
 Shulchan Aruch, Y.D. 331:57
 Chanata is the stage of growth for a fruit that determines which year it is considered to have grown (Rosh Hashana 13b). Some say this is an early stage of growth of the fruit (Rash, Shevi’it 2:7), while others say that it refers to the time known as onat hama’asrot, which is approximately one-third of its final size (Rambam, Hilchot Ma’aser Sheini 1:2).
 See Rambam, Hilchot Ma’aser Sheini 1:4; Tosafot (Rosh Hashana 13b, s.v. achar); and Chazon Ish (Shevi’it 27:7).
 Masechet Berachot 40a
 The Tanna’im suggest different opinions as to the identity of the eitz hada’at (Tree of Knowledge) in the Garden of Eden, one of which is that it was wheat. This is not just a botanical argument, but rather each opinion is describing a certain idea. See Rav Kook’s commentary Ein Aya to that sugya for a very insightful explanation.
 Tosefta, Kilayim 3:15
 Rosh, Berachot 6:23
 This is the way that the Bach (O.C. 203:1) and the sefer Birkat Hashem (Vol.3, beginning) explain the Rosh.
 As cited in the Tur (O.C. 203) and the Mordechai (Berachot 131).
 Beit Yosef, O.C. 203.
Rashi, Berachot 40a, s.v. gavza
 For a good summary of many of the opinions of the Rishonim and Acharonim on this subject, see Mishpetei Eretz, Orla, p.273-287.
 Aruch Hashulchan, O.C. 203:3
 Sefer Pri Ha’adama
 Maharal, Introduction to Sefer HaGola
 Shulchan Aruch, O.C. 203:3
 Yerushalmi, Kilayim 5:7
 Bi’ur HaGra on the Yerushami
 Chazon Ish, Zeraim, Orla 12
 Shulchan Aruch, O.C. 205:3
 Vayikra 19:23
 The Kaftor Vaferach was authored by Rav Ishtori Haparchi in fourteenth century France on the subject of mitzvot hateluyot ba’aretz.
 Responsa of the Radbaz 3:531
 Written by Rabbeinu Yosef Chaim, the Ben Ish Chai, who was the head of the Bagdad Jewish community about 150 years ago.
 Sefer Kisei Eliyhau, Y.D. 294
 Chazon Ish, Orla 12:3
 It should be noted though that it seems from the next paragraph in the Chazon Ish that he was willing to rely on this criteria to exempt something from orla only in conjunction with other factors.
 Sefer Birkat Hashem Vol.3, chapter 7, footnote 21
 Mishbetzot Zahav, Y.D. 91:7