Ecological Concerns in Rabbinic Literature

The ancient rabbinic sages did not see degradation of the natural environment as a systemic problem: but we can learn from their legislation addressing the more local environmental issues of which they were aware.

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Since a city is more attractive with a wide open space around it, no trees may be planted within a distance of 25 cubits from the city. If the trees were there before the city was built they can be cut down, but the owner is entitled to compensation for the loss of his trees. (All this obviously does not refer to the planting of trees as an adornment of the city, a concept unknown in Mishnaic times.) Carcasses, graves, and tanneries must be kept at a distance of at least 50 cubits from the city. A tannery must not be set up in such a way that the prevailing winds waft the unpleasant odor to the town.

A prohibition known as bal tashchit, “do not destroy,” is based by the Rabbis on the biblical injunction not to destroy fruit-bearing trees (Deuteronomy 20: 19), but it is extended by them to include wasting anything that can be used for the benefit of mankind. For instance, while it was the custom to rend the garments on hearing of the death of a near relative, to tear too much or too many garments violates this rule (BT Bava Kama 91b).

Maimonides formulates this as: “It is not only forbidden to destroy fruit-bearing trees but whoever breaks vessels, tears clothes, demolishes a building, stops up a fountain or wastes food, in a destructive way, offends against the law of ‘thou shalt not destroy.’” Maimonides’ qualification, “in a destructive way,” is intended to convey the thought that if, say, a fruit-bearing tree is causing damage to other trees, it may be cut down since then the act is constructive. A midrashic homily has it that the reason why the wood used for the Tabernacle in the wilderness was not from fruit-bearing trees, was to teach human beings that when they build their own homes they should use wood from other than fruit-bearing trees.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.