Parashat Shoftim

Wasteful Destruction

Judaism possesses the values on which an ecological morality may be grounded.

Print this page Print this page

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.

Similarly, the mention of "fruit trees" was expanded to include almost everything else. Maimonides writes (Sefer Hamitzvot, positive commandment 6): "And not only trees, but whoever breaks vessels, tears clothing, wrecks that which is built up, stops fountains, or wastes food in a destructive manner, transgresses the commandment of Bal Tashhit." Likewise, it is forbidden to kill an animal needlessly or to offer exposed water (presumed to be polluted or poisoned) to livestock.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

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.