Parashat Shoftim

Wasteful Destruction

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

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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.

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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.