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.

Print this page Print this page

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 Halakhic Perspective

Let us now return to the commandment of Bal Tashhit to see how the Biblical passage is interpreted in the halakhic [i.e., Jewish legal] 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; 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 Halakhah 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 Tashhit, 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 Halakhah on Bal Tashhit to the problem of ecology, it is important to test certain underlying assumptions of the halakhic 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, nonfruit-bearing trees are exempt from the law of Bal Tashhit, 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.

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.