Parashat Shoftim

Wasteful Destruction

Judaism possesses the values on which an ecological morality may be grounded.

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Provided by Canfei Nesharim, providing Torah wisdom about the importance of protecting our environment.

The biblical norm which most directly addresses itself to the ecological situation is that known as Bal Tashhit, "thou shalt not destroy." The passage, which appears in this week's Torah portion, reads (Deut. 20: 19-20):
"When you shall besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, you shall not destroy the trees thereof by wielding an ax against them; for you may eat of them but you shall not cut them down; for is the tree of the field man that it should be besieged of thee? Only the trees of which you know that they are not trees for food, them you may destroy and cut down that you may build bulwarks against the city that makes war with you until it fall."     

These two verses are not altogether clear, and admit of a variety of interpretations; we shall return to them shortly in elaborating the halakhah (Jewish law) of Bal Tashhit. But this much is obvious: the Torah forbids wanton destruction. Vandalism against nature entails the violation of a biblical prohibition.
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According to Sefer Ha-hinnukh, 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…"

The Halakhic Perspective

Let us now return to the commandment of Bal Tashhit to see how the biblical passage is interpreted in the halakhic 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. 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.

Similarly, the mention of "fruit trees" was expanded to include almost everything else. Maimonides writes (Sefer Hamitzvot, positive commandment 6): "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." 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, trees that do not bear fruit 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.

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 halakhah considers unlawful; it is not concerned with property rights, nor does it seek, in these instances, to protect private property.

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.

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 Tashhit 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.

Our Current Ecological Situation

A profound opportunity to apply this principle faces us daily in our homes, schools, and workplaces. In 2006, Americans produced 251.3 million tons of garbage (officially known as Municipal Solid Waste, or MSW), up 66% from 1980, and nearly three times as much as produced in 1960.

Much of this waste has potential life after the garbage can. Paper comprises 34% of MSW, and compostable food waste and yard trimmings over 25%. Even though recycling rates have more than doubled since 1960, only 32.5% of those 251.3 million tons was recycled in 2006. In houses, schools, offices, and restaurants across the country, waste is being dumped rather than set aside for more productive and environmentally conscious processing.

To encourage observance of Bal Tashhit in our communities, we might support recycling programs in our own communities and be more cognizant of our own waste. In this way we can avoid additional environmental harm.

In conclusion, Judaism--exegetically, halakhically, and theologically--possesses the values on which an ecological morality may be grounded. The commandment of Bal Tashhit in this week's Torah portion reminds us of the need for us to reflect upon our responsibilities, and reduce our own waste and its impact on the environment.

Suggested Action Items:

1) Before putting something in the trash can, consider whether it is possible to reuse, recycle, or compost some of what you are throwing away.
2) Shop at second-hand stores and reuse what someone else no longer needs.

3) Encourage the founding of a Pay as You Throw program in your community. These programs, which charge for non-recyclable waste removal above a set limit, have reduced 4.6-8.3 million tons of MSW from landfills annually by encouraging households to compost, recycle, and alter consumption habits rather than pay for extra garbage removal. At present, these programs are only available to 25% of the American population. Additional programs will make a significant difference.

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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.