Bal Tashchit: Optimism in a Time of Teshuva

By Candace Nachman

As we enter the Hebrew month of Elul, each Jew has an opportunity for internal reflection. Elul, the month immediately preceding Rosh Hashanah, is a time for each of us to work on our own spiritual growth. In an age when our localized actions have global ramifications, it is time for each of us to sit back and reflect on how our actions affect the environment and those with whom we share this earth.

During the month of Elul, we read parshat Shoftim, a good time to review the mitzvah of bal tashchit. Literally meaning “do not destroy”, bal tashchit has become the basis for a Jewish environmental ethic. “When in war against a city, you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are the trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city? However, if you know that a tree does not produce food, then until you have subjugated [the city], you may destroy [the tree] or cut off [what you need] to build siege machinery against the city waging war with you[1].”

It seems like a huge burden on the soldiers in the midst of battle to worry about which trees they are cutting down to help them onto victory. What then is the reason behind protecting the fruit-bearing trees of the besieged city?

Sforno, a late fifteenth/early sixteenth century rabbi in Italy, explains the sequence like this: “When you besiege a city, do not demolish the trees for the purpose of senseless destruction, with no strategic objective other than harming the local population, because this type of wanton devastation is representative of an army that is not sure of victory and eventual population of the captured territory, but you, who are sure of success in your mission, will inhabit the land. Therefore, do not obliterate the fruit bearing trees from which you will need to eat. As long as there are non-fruit bearing trees that will facilitate your military objectives, it is improper to destroy the fruit bearing trees, unless they are old and damaged and are no longer useful for that purpose.”

Sforno is teaching that G-d has promised success in these military efforts, so the Jewish armies must not employ a "scorched earth" policy in lands it will eventually occupy. From this we can learn of the Jewish value of optimism, which leads us to long-term responsibility. We believe that Hashem wants us to succeed, and that we must prepare for the future with this in mind. This is both practical and environmental. As we come towards Rosh Hashanah, the optimism that we will be renewed for a new year can help us take responsibility for our teshuva and for our future actions.

It seems from Sforno’s comment that this only relates to wartime behavior and responsibility towards trees. However, the Talmud explores the relationship of bal tashchit to all forms of useless destruction, including fruit trees (even while not in wartime), the need to protect one’s clothing from damage, and decisions about whether destruction is permitted for the benefit of someone’s health.

In Hilchos Malachim, Maimonides determines punishment for violators and also adds more actions to the list of what constitutes bal tashchit. He reasons that “it is forbidden to cut down fruit-bearing trees outside a besieged city, nor may a water channel be deflected from them so that they wither. Whoever cuts down a fruit-bearing tree is flogged. This penalty is imposed not only for cutting it down during a siege; whenever a fruit-yielding tree is cut down with destructive intent, flogging is incurred. It may be cut down, however, if it causes damage to other trees or to a field belonging to another man or if its value for other purposes is greater. The Law forbids only wanton destruction…Not only one who cuts down trees, but also one who smashes household goods, tears clothes, demolishes a building, stops up a spring, or destroys articles of food with destructive intent transgresses the command ‘you must not destroy[2].’” From this passage, we learn that in certain instances it is practical and therefore alright to cut down a fruit bearing tree tree. However, needless destruction is never acceptable.

In our time, wasteful destruction is even more present than in previous generations. In this time of Elul, how can we break the cycle and learn to observe this mitzvah more carefully? Maimonides teaches us that a person should be trained not to be destructive. He gives the example of when a person is buried; the deceased’s garments should be given to the poor and not buried in the grave where they are cast to worms and moths. According to Maimonides, anyone who buries the dead in an expensive garment violates the mitzvah of bal taschit[3]. This prohibition moves us towards the more general ethical principle underlying bal taschit—that it trains a person not to be destructive.

The Sefer Ha-Hinuch, a thirteenth century text which explicates in detail the 613 mitzvoth, elaborates greatly upon the notion of ethical training first mentioned by Maimonides and even sheds light onto why as Jews we should take the mitzvah of bal tashchit seriously. “The purpose of this mitzvah is to teach us to love that which is good and worthwhile and to cling to it, so that good becomes a part of us and we will avoid all that is evil and destructive. This is the way of the righteous and those who improve society, who love peace and rejoice in the good in people and bring them close to Torah: that nothing, not even a grain of mustard, should be lost to the world, that they should regret any loss or destruction that they see, and if possible they will prevent any destruction that they can. Not so are the wicked, who are like demons, who rejoice in destruction of the world, and they are destroying themselves[4].” Our first instinct should not be to destroy, but rather how we can make use of something with the least amount of damage.

During the month of Elul as we move closer to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we should reflect on our everyday actions and what we can do to avoid waste in order to better observe the mitzvah of bal tashchit, and therefore reduce our impact on the Earth.

To help fulfill the mitzvah of bal tashchit, you can recycle your newspapers, bottles, and other household products. Buy products made from recycled and/or biodegradable materials wherever and whenever you can. Only buy as much as you need. Another Talmudic ruling on bal tashchit prohibits the wasting of fuel[5]. Therefore, for shorter trips, try to walk instead of driving or use public transportation.

Let’s do what we can this Elul to return to Hashem with pure hearts, with love and rejoicing, and with concern for the precious world Hashem has created. Then the good will become a part of us and we will avoid all that is evil and destructive, and we will bring about a world that will provide for us and for our children. Let’s make that our teshuva goal this year!

[1] Deut. 20:19-20

[2] Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings and Wars 6:8,10

[3] Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Mourning 14:24

[4] Sefer Ha-Hinuch, Mitzvah #529

[5] Talmud Shabbat 67b

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