Bal Tashchit: The Torah Prohibits Wasteful Destruction

Fruit trees cannot be destroyed in war, and the Jewish legal tradition takes this to be a paradigm for any act of despoliation.

The biblical norm which most directly addresses itself to the ecological situation is that known as Bal Taschit, “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 halacha of Bal Taschit. 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 HaChinuch).

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.

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.

The Halachic Perspective

Let us now return to the commandment of Bal Taschit to see how the biblical passage is interpreted in the halachic [i.e., Jewish legal] tradition. At first blush, it would seem that the biblical prohibition covers only acts of vandalism performed during wartime. The halacha, however, considers the law to cover all situations, in peacetime as well as in war; apparently, the Bible merely formulated the principle in terms of a situation in which such vandalism is most likely to occur and in a most blatant fashion. Indeed, while Maimonides forbids the destruction of fruit trees for use in warfare, other authorities such as Rashi and Nahmanides specifically exempt the use of fruit trees, for such purposes as bulwarks, from the prohibition; what the Torah proscribed is not the use of trees to win a battle, which may often be a matter of life and death, but the wanton devastation of embattled areas so as to render them useless to the enemy should he win, e.g., a “scorched earth” policy.

The specific mention in the biblical passage of destroying by “wielding an axe” is not taken by the halacha as the exclusive means of destruction. Any form of despoliation is forbidden by biblical law, even diverting the irrigation without which the tree will wither and die. Again, it was assumed that the Torah was enunciating a general principle in the form of a specific and extreme case.

Similarly, the mention of “fruit trees” was expanded to include almost everything else:

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 Taschit, but his punishment is only flogging by rabbinic edict.” (Maimonides, Sefer Ha-mitzvot, Positive Commandment #6)

Likewise, it is forbidden to kill an animal needlessly or to offer exposed water (presumed to be polluted or poisoned) to livestock.

Nature of the Commandment

In order to understand the relevance of the Halacha on Bal Taschit to the problem of ecology, it is important to test certain underlying assumptions of the halachic conception. First, then, it should be pointed out that there is present no indication of any fetishistic attitude, any worship of natural objects for and of themselves. This is obvious from the passage just cited, wherein other objects, including artifacts, are covered in the prohibition. Furthermore, trees that do not bear fruit are exempt from the law of Bal Taschit, as are fruit trees that have aged and whose crop is not worth the value of the trees as lumber. Also, fruit trees of inferior quality growing amidst and damaging to those that are better and more expensive, may be uprooted.

What must be determined is whether the Halacha here is concerned only with commercial values, perhaps based upon an economy of scarcity, and possibly, even more exclusively, property rights; or whether there are other considerations beyond the pecuniary that, although they are formulated in characteristic halachic fashion sui generis and without reference to any external values, nevertheless may point indirectly to ecological concerns.

Beyond Commercial Values

It is at once obvious that commercial values do play a central role in the law. Thus, the fruit tree may be destroyed if the value of the crop is less than its value as lumber, as mentioned above, or if the place of the tree is needed to build a house thereon. Such permission is not granted, according to the later authorities, for reasons of esthetics or convenience, such as landscaping. However, the economic interest is not overriding; it must yield to considerations of health, so that in case of illness and when no other means are available to obtain heat, fruit trees may be cut down and used for firewood.

Even when the criterion is a commercial one, it is clear that it is the waste of an object of economic value per se that the halacha considers unlawful; it is not concerned with property rights, nor does it seek, in these instances, to protect private property. Thus, in a complicated case concerning a Levirate marriage, the Mishnah counsels one to act so that he does not needlessly disqualify a woman from later marrying a priest. The [Talmud] quotes Rabbi Joseph, who avers that Rabbi, [Rabbi Judah the Prince], redactor of the Mishnah, thereby intended a broader principle, which Rabbi Joseph phrases as: “One should not spill water out of his pool at a time when others need it,” i.e., one should never spoil an object or an opportunity, even where the gain or loss refers completely to another individual, and not to himself.

We previously quoted the author of Sefer HaChinuch who explains all of Bal Taschit as teaching the ideal of social utility of the world, rather than of purely private economic interest: the pious will not suffer the loss of a single seed “in the world,” whereas the wicked rejoice “at the destruction of the world.” In his summary of the laws included in the rubric of Bal Taschit, the author mentions that it certainly is proper to cut down a fruit tree if it causes damage to the fields of others.

A most cogent point is made, in this respect, by the late Rabbi Abraham Isaiah Karelitz, author of Hazon Ish. Maimonides, codifying the law of the Sifre, decides that Bal Taschit includes the prohibition to divert an irrigation ditch which waters a fruit tree. What, however, if the tree were watered manually, by filling a pail with water and carrying it to the tree: is the passive failure to do so considered a breach of Bal Taschit? Hazon Ish decides that it is not in violation of the law, because all sources indicate that the commandment of Bal Taschit is directed not at the owner of the tree or object, but at all Israelites.  Were the law addressed to individual proprietors, one could then demand of them that they continue to irrigate their trees in any manner necessary, and the failure to do so would constitute a transgression.

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 Taschit 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.

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

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