The Philosopher’s Plant 5.0: Maimonides’s Palm Tree

Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon (abbreviated as Rambam and known in the Western world under the name Maimonides) performed for Judaism the same invaluable service as Aristotle rendered to ancient Greek philosophy. The classical philosopher presented a unified worldview, both drawing on and disputing the theories of his predecessors; the Rabbi from Cordoba systematized disparate religious laws into a mammoth fourteen-tome Code, titled Mishneh Torah, or Repetition of the Torah. For this reason, the disciples of Maimonides nicknamed him ha-nesher ha-gadol’, “the great eagle,” as a tribute to the panoramic vision of the Law he bequeathed to future generations.

At the same time, Maimonides did not hesitate to descend from the heights of the Law to the minutiae of everyday life, proffering answers to the most obscure problems. He stipulated what was and was not permitted to the observers of Sabbath (the day of rest), formulated principles for resolving property disputes between neighbors and applied them to singular cases, and discussed the merits of boiling food in fruit juices. In light of his impressive macro- and micro-vision of the world, we may ask: How do plants look from the perspective of the eagle, that is to say, from the eagle’s-eye view of that teaching which purports to repeat the teaching of the Torah? And when zeroing in on any given plant species or a family of plants — say, Arecaceae, or palm trees — what does Maimonides see from his preferred theological and philosophical vantage points?

The Book of Acquisition (Qinyan), included in the fourteen-volume Code, details the rules governing sales and gifts, as well as the rightful enjoyment and utilization of property. One of the goals of Maimonides is to ensure that tree groves purchased specifically for felling have a chance to regenerate, or, in a word, sustainability. That is why he requires that the buyer of olive trees leave untouched at least a stump and two shoots growing close to the ground. But “in the case of palm trees,” he writes, the buyer “may dig and root them out because their stumps do not grow anew.”(1) & Palm trees are subject to absolute appropriation, which would leave no trace of their existence (except a hollow in the ground) once the felling operation is over. In stripping them of all legal protections, Maimonides thus exposes these trees to unlimited violence.

Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben coined the term homo sacer to refer to a human being reduced to the state of “bare life,” exposed to unlimited violence, and handed over to the possibility of being killed with impunity (though not sacrificed). Similarly, a palm tree in The Book of Acquisitions takes on the features of what we might call arbor sacra, a creature, either barely alive or not deemed alive at all, which, at any moment, may be chopped down without remainder. Palm trees grow in a permanent state of exception and are symbolic of all other trees and plants, excluded by Maimonides from the sphere of the living. They occupy the so-called zone of indistinction between life and death, between legal limits (within which they are nonetheless framed) and unlimited violence.

The exceptionality of arbor sacra extends so far as to absolve a potential violator of Sabbath of responsibility and deflect accusations of wrongdoing. In The Book of Seasons (Zemanim), Maimonides states that “if one hurls a stone or shoots an arrow, intending to kill another human being or an animal, and the missile does not kill but instead uproots a tree in the course of its flight, he is exempt.”(2) & Although he does not specify what happens when, aiming to uproot a tree, one actually kills a human or an animal, it is not hard to guess that the exemption would not apply. If the unintended nature of the outcome frees the shooter of liability, it is because the “victim” of the action is not a victim at all but arbor sacra prone to unrestrained violence. In contrast to Christianity, intentions are not as significant as the unintended practical outcomes of human behavior that, only seemingly arbitrary, emanate from God’s sovereign and mysterious will. An uprooted tree is a small price to pay for absolving a potential violator of Sabbath through a direct (and sovereign) divine intervention in the sublunary realm.

The Maimonidean palm, indeed, bespeaks the destructible materiality of anything in the sublunary world, contrasted to the indestructibility of heavens:

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…there are no contraries in heaven. That thesis is correct. However, we have not claimed that the heavens have been generated as the horse and palm tree are. Nor have we claimed that their being composite renders necessary their passing-away as is the case with plants and animals because of the contraries that subsist in them.(3)

A tree may be destroyed with impunity because it is thoroughly destructible — to do so is to bring out its finite nature and to foreground the contraries that it contains, rendering its existence logically impossible. The composite nature of plants and animals, represented by the palm and the horse, is radically distinct from the metaphysical simplicity of heavens. It matters, of course, in which context we facilitate the passing away of plants and animals, that is, whether this is done in a ritually correct way and at an appropriate time (i.e., not on Sabbath). Yet, from the ethical standpoint informed by the thought of Maimonides, there is nothing inherently wrong in terminating the existence of a given plant or an animal, seeing that this possibility is anticipated in their genesis, the mode of their generation. Harboring contraries, they contain the seeds of their own destruction. The palm tree and the horse, arbor sacra and animal sacer are thus the true figures of “bare life.”

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(1) Moses Maimonides, The Code of Maimonides: Book Twelve: The Book of Acquisitions, translated by Isaac Klein (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1951), p. 86.

(2) Moses Maimonides, The Code of Maimonides: Book Three: The Book of Seasons, translated by Solomon Gandz and Hyman Kleim (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1961), p. 7.

(3) Moses Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed, translated by M. Friedländer (New York: Dover Publications, 1956), p. 180, translation modified.

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