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.
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.
What must be determined is whether the Halakhah 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 halakhic fashion sui generis and without reference to any external values, nevertheless may point indirectly to ecological concerns.
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