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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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.

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.

nature and environment quizEven 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 halakhah 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 Ha-hinnukh who explains all of Bal Tashhit 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 Tashhit, 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 Tashhit 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 Tashhit? Hazon Ish decides that it is not in violation of the law, because all sources indicate that the commandment of Bal Tashhit 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.

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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.