Author Archives: Rabbi Norman Lamm

Rabbi Norman Lamm

About Rabbi Norman Lamm

Rabbi Norman Lamm, Ph.D., served more than a quarter of a century as President of Yeshiva University and of its Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. He is the author of The Shema: Spirituality and Law in Judaism and Seventy Faces: Articles of Faith.

Wasteful Destruction

Provided by Canfei Nesharim, providing Torah wisdom about the importance of protecting our environment.

The biblical norm which most directly addresses itself to the ecological situation is that known as Bal Tashhit, “thou shalt not destroy.” The passage, which appears in this week’s Torah portion, reads (Deut. 20: 19-20):
“When you shall besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, you shall not destroy the trees thereof by wielding an ax against them; for you may eat of them but you shall not cut them down; for is the tree of the field man that it should be besieged of thee? Only the trees of which you know that they are not trees for food, them you may destroy and cut down that you may build bulwarks against the city that makes war with you until it fall.”     

These two verses are not altogether clear, and admit of a variety of interpretations; we shall return to them shortly in elaborating the halakhah (Jewish law) of Bal Tashhit. But this much is obvious: the Torah forbids wanton destruction. Vandalism against nature entails the violation of a biblical prohibition.
canfei nesharim
According to Sefer Ha-hinnukh, the purpose of the commandment is to train man to love the good by abstaining from all destructiveness: “For this is the way of the pious…they who love peace are happy when they can do good to others and bring them close to Torah and will not cause even a grain of mustard to be lost from the world…”

The Halakhic Perspective

Let us now return to the commandment of Bal Tashhit to see how the biblical passage is interpreted in the halakhic tradition. At first blush, it would seem that the biblical prohibition covers only acts of vandalism performed during wartime.

The halakhah, however, considers the law to cover all situations, in peacetime as well as in war. The specific mention in the biblical passage of destroying by “wielding an axe” is not taken by the halakhah as the exclusive means of destruction. Any form of despoliation is forbidden by biblical law.

Humans as Co-Creators

Provided by Canfei Nesharim, providing Torah wisdom about the importance of protecting our environment.

In this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, God commands the Jewish people concerning the laws of borrowing and guarding property (Exodus 22: 6-14). The relations between God, people, and nature may be clarified by referring to the halakhah (Jewish law) concerning the relationships between owner, material, and artisan. The Mishnah discusses the case of a man (owner) who gave some material to an artisan to fashion it. The artisan, instead of repairing, spoiled the object. The law is that the artisan must pay the amount of the damages to the owner.

canfei nesharimThe question arises in the Babylonian Talmud (Bava Kama 98b): What is this object, which the owner gave over to the artisan, and the damages for which the latter must compensate the owner? Clearly, if it was a finished vessel, and the artisan broke it, the latter must pay the difference in value.

But if the owner gave raw material to the worker, asking that he fashion it into a complete vessel, and the artisan did so, but then broke the very vessel he made, is the artisan obligated to compensate the owner for the difference in value between a perfect vessel and a broken one? Or might the artisan be free of obligation since the broken vessel is no less in value than the raw material with which he began?

Who Owns “Improved Material”?

This question was in controversy amongst both Tannaim (early rabbinic sages) and Amora’im (later rabbinic sages). Some held that uman koneh b’shevah kelim, that the artisan has a monetary right in the vessel by virtue of the improvement he effected in it in transforming it from, for instance, mere planks into a table. If the table belongs, then, to the artisan, he cannot be held responsible to pay the owner of the planks for damages to that table if he should later break it.

Others disagree: the improvement in the material is the property of the original owner, and if the artisan later destroyed the completed object, he injured the owner and must compensate him for the cost of the completed object. Most authorities decide the law in favor of this opinion: it is the original owner of the raw material who has proprietary rights in the completed artifact, not the artisan who invested his fabricative talents.

Bal Tashhit: The Torah Prohibits Wasteful Destruction

Reprinted with permission from the chapter “Ecology in Jewish Law and Theology” in
Faith and Doubt
, © Norman Lamm, 1971, KTAV Publishing House. 

The biblical norm which most directly addresses itself to the ecological situation is that known as Bal Tashhit, “thou shalt not destroy.” The passage reads:

When thou shalt besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, thou shalt not destroy the trees thereof by wielding an ax against them; for thou mayest eat of them but thou shalt not cut them down; for is the tree of the field man that it should be besieged of thee? Only the trees of which thou knowest that they are not trees for food, them thou mayest destroy and cut down that thou mayest build bulwarks against the city that maketh war with thee until it fall. (Deuteronomy 20:19,20)

jewish wastefulnessThese two verses are not altogether clear, and admit of a variety of interpretations; we shall return to them shortly in elaborating the halakhah of Bal Tashhit. But this much is obvious: that the Torah forbids wanton destruction. Vandalism against nature entails the violation of a biblical prohibition. According to one medieval authority, the purpose of the commandment is to train man to love the good by abstaining from all destructiveness. “For this is the way of the pious…they who love peace are happy when they can do good to others and bring them close to Torah and will not cause even a grain of mustard to be lost from the world….” (Sefer Ha-hinnukh).

A more modern author provides a somewhat more metaphysical explanation: the fruit tree was created to prolong man’s life and this purpose therefore may not be subverted by using the tree to make war and destroy life. (Rabbi Yaakov Zvi Meklenburg, Ha-ketav Ve-ha-kabbalah to Deuteronomy 20:19).

Those few cases in Scriptural history in which this norm was violated are special cases. Thus, when King Hezekiah stopped all the fountains in Jerusalem in the war against Sennacherib), which [the midrash collection] Sifre regards as a violation of the biblical commandment, equal to chopping down a fruit tree, he was taken to task for it by the talmudic sages. In another incident, [the prophet] Elisha counseled such a scorched earth policy; Maimonides considered this a temporary suspension of the law for emergency purposes (hora’t sha’ah), a tactic permitted to a prophet, but an act which is not normative.

Humans as Co-creators: Co-owners as Well?

Reprinted with permission from Faith and Doubt, © Norman Lamm, 1971, KTAV Publishing House.

The doctrine which teaches man’s discontinuity with and superiority to the rest of the natural order, must not be misconstrued as a sanction for man to despoil the world. First, while he is beyond the merely natural, he also participates in it; he is an intersection of the natural and the divine (or supernatural). The plurals in the verse, “And God said, Let us make man in our image,” are explained by Rabbi Joseph Kimhi [a twelfth-century Provencal commentator] as addressed by God to the earth, or nature. Man remains inextricably tied to nature even while he is urged to transcend it. Man is a creature, and the denial of his creatureliness turns his creative powers to satanic and destructive ends.

Second, the very nature of the concept of the imagehood of man implies the warning that he must never overreach in arrogance. He may build, change, produce, create, but he does not hold title to the world, he is not the “King of the world,” an appellation reserved for the Deity, because the original all-inclusive creation was exclusively that of God, and mortal man has no part in it. His subordinate role in the cosmic scheme means that nature was given to him to enjoy but not to ruin — a concept reinforced by the law that before deriving any benefit or pleasure from the natural world, such as eating or drinking, one must recite a blessing to the “King of the world”: an acknowledgment that it is God, not man, who holds ultimate title to the universe. Hence, without this blessing-acknowledgment, it is as if one stole from God” (Babylonian Talmud [=BT], Shabbat 35a).

That man’s role as co-creator with God must not be exaggerated we learn from the following Talmudic passage: “The Rabbis taught: man was created on the eve of the Sabbath. Why? So that the Sadducees (i.e., heretics) should not say that God had a partner in the act of creation of the world” (BT Sanhedrin 38a). This statement does not contradict that of R. Akiva, who declared man’s actions more beautiful, or suitable, than those of God, hence emphasizing the religious sanction of man’s creative office. Man remains a partner of God in the ongoing creative process. However, here we must distinguish between two Hebrew synonyms for creation: beri’ah and yetzirah. The former refers to creatio ex nihilo and hence can only be used of God. The latter describes creation out of some preexistent substance, and hence may be used both of God (after the initial act of genesis) and man. God has no “partners” in the one-time act of beri’ah with which He called the universe into being, and the world is, in an ultimate sense, exclusively His. He does invite man to join Him, as a co-creator, in the ongoing process of yetzirah. Hence, man receives from God the commission to “subdue” nature by means of his yetzirah-functions; but, because he is incapable of beri’ah, man remains responsible to the Creator for how he has disposed of the world.