Bal Tashhit: The Torah Prohibits Wasteful Destruction
The Bible prohibits the destruction of fruit trees as a tactic of war. The Jewish legal tradition takes this to be a paradigm for any act of despoliation, in peacetime as well as in war.
Reprinted with permission from the chapter “Ecology in Jewish Law and Theology” in Faith and Doubt, © Norman Lamm, 1971, KTAV Publishing House. The original passage contains extensive bibliographic material and comments.
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)
These 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’at sha‘ah), a tactic permitted to a prophet, but an act which is not normative.
The talmudic and midrashic traditions continue this implicit assumption of man’s obligation to, and responsibility for, nature’s integrity. Nothing that the Lord created in the world was superfluous or vain; hence, all must be sustained. An aggadah, often repeated in the literature, says that God created the world by looking into the Torah as an architect into a blueprint. Creation, the Rabbis were saying, is contingent upon the Torah or, the survival of the world depends upon human acceptance of moral responsibility.