“Waste Not–Want Not”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shoftim, we are introduced to the concept of Bal Tashchit, the prohibition of wanton waste and destruction. Interestingly, this principle is derived from the rules governing the conduct of the Israelite soldiers during battle in ancient times.

In Deuteronomy 20:19, we read, “Kee ta’tzoor el eer ya’meem ra’beem l’hee’lah’chaym ah’leh’hah l’taf’sah, lo tash’cheet et ay’tzah lin’do’ach ah’lav gar’zen, kee mee’meh’noo toh’chayl v’oh’toh loh tich’roht,” When you besiege a city for many days to wage war against it to seize it, do not destroy its trees by swinging an ax against them, for from it you will eat, and you shall not cut it down; for is the tree of the field a man that it should enter the siege before you?

The Torah then proceeds to clarify that a tree that does not serve as food and interferes with the conduct of the war may be cut down.

Because the wanton destruction of trees during war is construed as a sign of unbridled barbarism, the rabbis extended this prohibition to include, even in times of peace, any act of unprincipled waste or destruction of anything that could be of benefit to man. Reckless waste is considered to be an insult against G-d, since everything is His creation. In rabbinic literature it is known as the prohibition of “bal tashchit“– literally: you shall not destroy!

Many rationale are offered by the commentators to explain the prohibition of bal tashchit. R’ Saadiah Gaon (882-942, Saadiah ben Joseph, great Babylonian leader, scholar and philosopher) and Rabbeinu Bachya (1263-1340, Bachya ben Asher, Biblical commentator during the Golden Age of Spain) maintain that trees may not be cut down indiscriminately during war because they are not enemies. It is senseless to vent one’s hostility on a tree, merely because it happens to grow on enemy territory.

Nachmanides (Ramban, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spanish Torah commentator) maintains that troops often become uncontrollably destructive during war because the soldiers are frequently fatalistic. Since they are of the attitude that there may be no tomorrow, they often show total disregard for their environment. A Jewish soldier, however, is expected to trust in G-d who has pledged to our people that there will be a tomorrow for them.

Both the Ibn Ezra (1098-c.1164, Spanish Bible commentator) and the author of the Sefer Ha’Chinuch (the classic work on the 613 commandments, their rationale and their regulations, by an anonymous author in 13th century Spain) offer very au courant rationale for the prohibition of bal tashchit. The Ibn Ezra states that trees are necessary for our well-being and provide people with many vital benefits, hence we may not abuse them by cutting them down indiscriminately. The Chinuch makes the radical comparison of a tree or any living thing to a human being. Just as no human being is so unimportant that one may ignore his loss or not try to save him, so too no living thing, not even a mustard grain, is so insignificant that it may be destroyed without reasonable cause.

In his Code (Laws of Kings 6:8), Maimonides classifies the cutting down of a tree as a specific Torah violation. However, wanton destruction of anything other than a tree is rabbinically prohibited. The Tosafot, on the other hand, consider all wanton destruction as a Torah prohibition (Tractate Avodah Zarah 11, note: “Okrin“).

The rabbis of the Talmud greatly expanded this prohibition. For instance, in tractate Yevamot 44a, they argue that it is prohibited for a farmer to dispose of his wastewater if another farmer could use it. After all, by giving it to another farmer, he benefits and no one loses. Being wasteful, on the other hand, is considered to be selfish and ungenerous, and such behavior is regarded as “midat S’dom,” equivalent to the evil practices of the people of Sodom. In ancient times, such wasteful behavior was punishable by lashes.

Maimonides rules in his Code that one who, for the sake of wanton destruction, breaks vessels, rips garments, destroys a house, stops up a well, or ruins food, violates the principle of bal tashchit. Some authorities maintain that one who rends his garments as a sign of mourning beyond what is necessary also violates bal tashchit. Those who rend their garments, break their vessels or disperse their money wantonly are like idolaters, unless they are doing it for a good purpose or for the sake of educating others. The Sefer Chassidim (an influential ethical guide authored by Rabbi Yehuda HaChassid of Germany, c. 1150-1217) even goes so far as to state that one who removes his warm clothes in cold weather and puts on fine silks that may be ruined by the snow has doubly violated the prohibition of bal tashchit, because of the callous destruction of garments and the wanton destruction of one’s own body that is now exposed to cold and subject to possible illness.

The far-reaching nature of these rules are rather remarkable, considering the age in which they were promulgated. The sensitivity reflected in these laws would have been remarkable had they been pronounced in the Middle Ages, let alone 1000, 2000, and 3000 years ago. This is our precious legacy of which we must be proud. Once again, this foresightedness proves that when it comes to ethics and morality, the Torah was light-years ahead of all others.

May you be blessed.