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.

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However, the law is addressed to all Israel, and hence it is negative in nature, prohibiting an outright act of vandalism, such as diverting a stream from a tree, but not making it incumbent upon one actively to sustain every tree. What we may derive from this is that the prohibition is not essentially a financial law dealing with property (mammon), but religious or ritual law (issur) which happens to deal with the avoidance of vandalism against objects of economic worth. As such, Bal Tashhit is based on a religio-moral principle that is far broader than a prudential commercial rule per se, and its wider applications may well be said to include ecological considerations.

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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.