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Judaism and Environmentalism: Bal Tashchit

Judaism and Environmentalism: Bal Tashchit

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The commandment of bal tashchit—do not destroy or waste—has long been considered central to a Jewish environmental ethic. What is the basis for the commandment? We will explore how the Jewish tradition widely forbids wasteful acts, how wasting contributes to degradation of the planet, and how not wasting can help us improve our lives both physically and spiritually.

Jewish tradition widely forbids wasteful acts.

The Origin

When you besiege a city for many days to wage war against it to capture it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them, for you may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down. Is the tree of the field a man, to go into the siege before you? However, a tree you know is not a food tree, you may destroy and cut down, and you shall build bulwarks against the city that makes war with you, until its submission. (Deuteronomy 20:19–201)

The Torah teaches us that we are not to cut down fruit trees in wartime. Yet the rabbis in the Babylonian Talmud (c. 200–500 CE) understand verse 19 (above) to be a general principle beyond war and The Torah forbids the destruction of edible fruit. fruit trees. They employ a common form of rabbinic interpretation, making a logical inference from a more stringent to a less stringent case. If Jews must not cut down fruit trees in the extreme case of a war of conquest, when destruction is the norm, how much the more so does this apply to normal life.

Needless Destruction

The general prohibition against needless destruction, derived from the verse on fruit trees, concerns not destroying directly or indirectly anything that may be of use to people. It applies to wasting energy, clothing, water, money, and more. According to the Talmud, this prohibition includes wastefully burning oil or fuel.2 Many rishonim (commentators between c. 1000 and 1500 CE) conclude that wasting any resources of benefit to humans is a Torah prohibition. For example, Maimonides (1135–1204, Spain) explains that a Jew is forbidden to “smash household goods, tear clothes, demolish a building, stop up a spring, or destroy articles of food.”3 Rabbeinu Yerucham (1280–1350, Spain) rails against wasting water when others are in need.

The Talmudic sage Rabbi Yishmael makes another logical inference: if the Torah warns us not to destroy fruit trees, then we should be even more careful about not destroying the fruit itself.4 Currently, in Israel, Rabbi Moshe Yitzhak Forehand notes that all rabbinic authorities agree, based on this teaching, that it is forbidden from the Torah to destroy edible fruit.5 This applies to all food that is fit to be eaten, and not only the fruit of trees.6

Exceptions to the Rule

Rabbi Moshe Aaron Poleyeff (1888–1967, Europe and U.S.) wrote that overeating may be a double transgression of bal tashchit—first by wasting food, and second by harming one’s body.7 Overeating wastes food and harms the body. Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky (contemporary, Israel) considers taking more food than one can eat at a buffet to be bal tashchit.8

There are limitations to what is considered “needless” destruction. Observance of a mitzvah, like tearing clothes in mourning, or preservation of human life or health, overrules bal tashchit when the two come into conflict. Also, one does not violate bal tashchit when destroying an object is of more benefit than preserving it. For example, if a tree’s wood is worth more than its fruit, then it may be permitted to cut it down.

That said, the Jewish sages reveal a high degree of sensitivity when it comes to waste. According to the Sefer HaChinuch (13th century, Spain, author unknown), righteous Jews “do not allow the loss of even a grain of mustard, being distressed at the sight of any loss or destruction. If they can help it, they prevent any destruction with all the means at their disposal.”9 Quite a level to which to aspire.

G‑d’s World

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808–1888, Germany) explains in very strong language that lo tashchit, “do not destroy,” is “the most comprehensive warning to human beings not to misuse the position which G‑d has given them as masters of the world and its matter through capricious, passionate, or merely thoughtless wasteful destruction of anything on earth.”10

Certain practices in Western society directly conflict with “bal tashchit.”

He continues in his book Horeb,

If . . . you should regard the beings beneath you as objects without rights, not perceiving G‑d who created them, and therefore desire that they feel the might of your presumptuous mood, instead of using them only as the means of wise human activity—then G‑d’s call proclaims to you, “Do not destroy anything!” Be a mensch! Only if you use the things around you for wise human purposes, sanctified by the word of My teaching, only then are you a mensch and have the right over them which I have given you as a human . . . However, if you destroy, if you ruin, at that moment you are not a human . . . and have no right to the things around you. I lent them to you for wise use only; never forget that I lent them to you. As soon as you use them unwisely, be it the greatest or the smallest, you commit treachery against My world, you commit murder and robbery against My property, you sin against Me! . . . In truth, there is no one nearer to idolatry than one who can disregard the fact that all things are the creatures and property of G‑d, and who then presumes to have the right, because he has the might, to destroy them according to a presumptuous act of will. Yes, that one is already serving the most powerful idols—anger, pride, and above all ego, which in its passion regards itself as the master of things.11

Modern-Day Bal Tashchit

Today, we use and waste vast amounts of resources. Indeed, certain practices in Western society directly conflict with the principle of bal tashchit. Let us examine one modern-day example of bal tashchit mentioned above—the throwing out of edible food.

According to a 2011 study commissioned by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “Roughly one-third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year—approximately 1.3 billion tons—gets lost or wasted.”12 In the United States, less than three percent of this waste was recovered and recycled.13 While some of this food waste was inedible, part of it was good food discarded by satiated diners, or edible leftovers thrown away from the refrigerator. Disposing of food costs money: about one billion dollars spent annually in the United States.14 In garbage dumps, this decomposing food waste produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

The environmental impact of this waste occurs not only in the garbage dumps where it is deposited, but also in the resources used to produce it. Fossil fuels, water and land are all required to produce food, and in the case of meat, exceptional amounts. For example, over 5,000 gallons of water are calculated as being required to produce one pound of beef.15 One study examined the energy embedded in wasted food—from agriculture, transportation, processing, food sales, storage and preparation. It concluded that this energy “represents approximately 2% of annual energy consumption in the United States.”16 By wasting food, we squander a tremendous amount of resources, reduce the food available for the world’s poor, and waste money that could be used for important purposes. By heeding the Torah’s call not to waste, we can therefore generate ecological, social and financial benefits.

The verses that introduce this mitzvah describe a war against an external enemy, but the rabbis make clear that the real battle to be waged is within ourselves, against a tendency to be wasteful. Rabbi Hirsch identifies the key traits that lead to wasteful behavior—anger, pride, and most of all, ego. To tread lightly and live without wasting, one must cultivate the opposite of these traits—inner peace, humility and selflessness.

By consuming in a mindful way and not wasting, we can become healthier, more balanced human beings, and also promote a healthier and more balanced world. May the changes we make in our own lives ripple outward to our families, our community, and our planet. 17

This material was produced as part of the Jewcology project. Jewcology is a new Web portal for the global Jewish environmental community. Thanks to the ROI community for their generous support, which made the Jewcology project possible.

Footnotes
1.

Judaica Press translation.

2.

Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 67b. For more on bal tashchit of energy, and an explanation of this source, see the Jewcology article on energy.

3.

Mishna Torah, Laws of Kings 6:10.

4.

Sifrei (a halachic Midrash), end of Parshat Shoftim.

5.

Birkat Hashem (Jerusalem, 2000), p. 211. He cites the views of Rabbi Shmuel Heller in Kuntres Kevod Melachim 5a, Rabbi Moshe Aaron Poleyeff in Orach Meisharim 29:4, and that of Rabbi Yehudah Aszod (She’eilot u-Teshuvot Mahari Aszod, Yoreh De’ah 164).

6.

Birkat Hashem, p. 213 and footnote ב there. Again, he cites the views of Rabbi Heller and Rabbi Aszod, as well as that of Zayit Ra’anan.

7.

Orach Meisharim 29:6. Orach Meisharim was posthumously reprinted in 1970. Rabbi Poleyeff was a rosh yeshivah at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University.

8.

Written response to questions on bal tashchit submitted by the author, Spring 2005.

9.

Sefer HaChinuch: The Book of [Mitzvah] Education, evidently by Rabbi Pinchas haLevi of Barcelona, translated by Charles Wengrov (Jerusalem: Feldheim, 1989), vol. 5, p. 145.

10.

Commentary to Deuteronomy 20:19.

11.

Horeb, sections 397, 398.

12.

The study, Global Food Losses and Food Waste, was commissioned by FAO from the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology (SIK).

13.

“Basic Information about Food Waste,” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (http://www.epa.gov/osw/conserve/materials/organics/food/fd-basic.htm).

14.

Waste Not, Want Not, a joint publication of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the USDA.

15.

This estimate, by John Robbins in his book Food Revolution (San Francisco: Conari Press, 2001), is based on Dr. David Pimentel et al, in Ecological Integrity: Integrating Environment, Conservation and Health (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2001). Pimentel is professor of ecology and agricultural science at Cornell University. The estimate is based on 100 units of hay and four units of grain being fed to cattle to produce one unit of beef. Robbins’ book also contains statistics on how much fossil fuels, water and land are required to produce a number of different foods.

16.

“Wasted Food, Wasted Energy: The Embedded Energy in Food Waste in the United States,” Amanda D. Cuellar, Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy, The University of Texas at Austin, and Michael E. Webber, Mechanical Engineering, Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy, The University of Texas at Austin. Environ. Sci. Technol., 2010, 44 (16): 6464–6469.

17.

The author would like to thank Evonne Marzouk for her helpful editorial comments.

Rabbi Yonatan Neril is founder and director of Jewish Eco Seminars, which engages and educates the Jewish community with Jewish environmental wisdom.
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Discussion (7)
May 23, 2016
I was wondering because overbuying is a direct function of capitalism and its good for the economy when people buy more (i'm pretty sure)? So I was wondering does Ba'al Taschit work if it creates more wealth.
Anonymous
July 27, 2012
Hi, Evonne and Rabbi Yonatan!
Excellent article! :)

Rabbi Yonatan, I didn't know you were a Chabad rabbi!

Evonne, I was tempted to go on Facebook today but decided to learn some Torah here, instead! :)

I have been trying to tamp down my over-purchasing and to remember to use up my leftovers before they spoil.

Wow, I did not know that overeating actually counts as Bal Tashchit! It makes sense when I think about it but I never thought about it. I will try harder now not to overeat. (Perhaps as a side bonus I could finally lose a little weight....)
Sarah Bedder
Seattle, WA
July 26, 2012
Organic and "Pesticides"
Thank you very much for mentioning "pesticides". Yes, we need care when extracting "organic" matter for composting. Unless trash is sorted[cans & bottles, biological matter, paper, & chemically contaminated waste)one may unwittingly "poison" oneself & the earth.
I am a highly educated, trained, & experienced research scientist. When I "extract" edible foods or organic matter for composting, I carefully inspect, study, & then clean, peel, soak, & sometimes discard whatever surprise "gift" I've discovered. This is something requiring a high level of expertise. I would never suggest anyone "eat garbage" unless educated & skilled. Food is easily contaminated by sheet rock dust, blown sand & powdered concrete, auto exhaust & dripped petroleum, rat & insect poisons, & so on & on! Being careful must be utmost in one's mind doing anything like this.
However, there are many "organic" pesticides. When I did my subsistence acre garden, it was bounded by a hedge of my beloved marigolds!
Dr. Elyas F. Isaacs
New York, NY
July 25, 2012
Vegetarianism
The most important contribution one could make for the enviroment is be a vegetarian or drastically reduce our meat consumption. For example, it takes 16 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound on a cow. The earth, the cow and ourselves would be better off if we ate the grain instead of raising animals for slaughter. The same is true for water resources. Livestock and factory farming require a lot of water not to mention their waste and slaughter pollutes our ground water. Ultimately, it is what G-d wants too. All life was commanded to be vegetarian in Gen 1:29-30 and when the moshiach comes we will return to a peaceful diet, Isaiah Ch 11.
Marty
Denver
July 24, 2012
Conservation & Sustainable Development
I was raised as a conservationist by parents who loved the natural environment as a gift from the Lord & also as something we humans were charged to protect & nurture. By 1970, with the advent of the "organic movement" & the institution of "Earth Day" sustainable development, biodiversity, & environmental protection had been institutionalized. I contribute to a blog on "Sustainable Development" & also serve on several UN NGO Committees which consult the UN Office of Sustainable Development.
Recently, I became involved in some research to see about "lost" food & organic matter. With only brief examination of one floor in one building from 5 trash cans I recovered enough food to about 70% feed myself. And over the course of about a week sampling three days, I discovered from the same exact location recovered organic matter later useable for compost of about a pound per day or 365 pounds per year. Well, that is what's here for conservation AND recovery. Always, Dr. Elyas F. Isaac
Dr. Elyas F. Isaacs
New York, NY
July 24, 2012
Excellent reading, thank you!
Mr. Aaron Makabi
July 22, 2012
food
Organic food prevents bal tashchit because pesticides on the conventional produce pollutes the gound water and the soil. We alll violate this mitzvah every day because all our energy consumption pollutes the earth.
Benzion
North Tonawanda, NY