Towards the end of Parashas Shoftim, the Torah outlines the laws pertaining to besieging a city during war. Among these we find the prohibition of bal tashchis:

“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” (Devarim 20:19-20).

A tree is not a person. It is not an enemy that must be assailed, and it is forbidden to needlessly harm it.

In the present article we will discuss the halachic parameters of the prohibition, and outline its details. What is the basis and the rationale for the prohibition? Is it permitted to cut down fruit trees for a constructive purpose, and which justifications are sufficient for this? Is there an obligation to take active measures to prevent waste and destruction?

These questions, among others, are discussed below.

Respect the World

The Mishnah teaches (Bava Kama 8:6): “One who cuts down his own trees, even though it is not permitted to do so, is exempt from liability.” The reason a person is not permitted to cut down his trees is the prohibition of bal tashchis (Rashi, Bava Kama 90b).

The wording of the Mishnah, and its placement in the Order of Nezikin (Damages), indicate that the prohibition of bal tashchis is related to the principles of damage: It is forbidden for a person do cut down his trees because he thereby causes [environmental] damage. Yet, he has no liability because a person is not liable for causing damage to his own property.

The Chinuch (529) adds that the Mitzvah teaches a person the proper way to act, and tries to imbue him with good character traits: “The foundation of the Mitzvah is to teach us to love the good and the beneficial, and to cling to it… Thus a person will distance all that is evil and damaging. This is the way of the pious in the world… who will not waste even a grain of mustard, and will feel anguish over any waste and destruction they see.”

Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch mentions the Divine dimension that is present in all things: Hashem has given His world to man for human use and for human benefit. “However, if you destroy, if you ruin, at that moment you are not 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!” (Chorev, no. 397-8).

In Rabbi Hirsch’s words, which are borrowed from the Talmudic expression concerning somebody who “breaks utensils in his anger,” one who acts destructively is the closest one can get to idol worship.

Application of the Prohibition

The Torah prohibition of bal tashchis is mentioned specifically about fruit trees, concerning which we are commanded “do not destroy its trees.” However, even somebody who destroys just the fruit transgresses the prohibition, as Chazal (Sifri) derive from a kal va-chomer: “If we are warned against destroying a fruit-producing tree, how much more so are we warned concerning the fruit themselves.”

Moreover, in the Gemara we find the application of the prohibition to all things beneficial, including animals (Chulin 7b), vessels and utensils (Shabbos 129a), food (Shabbos 140b) and clothing (Kiddushin 32a).

However, because the principle prohibition is stated in the case of fruit trees, only actually destroying a fruit tree is punishable by Torah lashes. One who destroys other things is punished by rabbinic malkos, as the Rambam writes: “Not trees alone, but rather anybody who smashes household goods, tears clothes, demolishes a building, stops up a spring, or destroys articles of food, transgresses bal tashchis – yet he only receives lashes on a rabbinic level” (Laws of Kings 6:10).

Although some write that the Rambam includes other items only as a rabbinic prohibition (Noda Biyhuda, Yoreh De’ah 10), the consensus of commentaries is that the destruction of all beneficial things is a Torah offense, though the Torah punishment applies only to the destruction (of fruit trees) specified by the verse (Mishneh Le-Melech; Minchas Chinuch; Semag, Lavin 229; Semak no. 175; Tosafos, Bava Metzia 32b).

Cutting Down Trees for a Purpose

The prohibition against destroying a fruit tree is not absolute, and there are instances in which it is permitted to do so. Chazal (Sifri, Devarim 204; Bava Kama 91b) derive from a textual interpretation that where there is a need to cut down trees to build a bulwark, one must first seek barren trees. But if these cannot be found it is permitted to cut down a fruit-bearing tree for the purpose.

A number of early commentators on the Torah add different instances in which it is permitted to cut down fruit trees as part of a military campaign. After explaining that Jewish soldiers must trust in Hashem that they will be victorious and will ultimately come to eat the fruit of the trees, Ramban writes that it is permitted to raze a forest to the ground if this is required to prevent the enemy from gathering wood or from hiding therein.

The Chizkuni likewise adds that trees can be cut down to prevent enemy soldiers from fighting guerilla warfare, and the Rashbam adds that trees can be cut down to allow soldiers to come close to the besieged city.

Bal Tashchis for Other Purposes

It is likewise permitted to destroy things where a beneficial human purpose is achieved.

For instance, it is permitted to break a glass cup at a wedding in memory of the Destruction of the Temple. Although this is a act of destruction, the constructive purpose of recalling the Temple permits the act (see Berachos 31a; Rema, Orach Chaim 560:2).

In the same way, it is permitted for a mourner to rend his garments when mourning a lost relative – though it is forbidden to tear noticeably more than is required, and only for exceptional Torah scholars is it permitted to tear extra garments (see Bava Kama 91b and Tosafos s.v. over; Mo’ed Kattan 24a).

The prohibition cannot be specified exactly, but the general rule is that where the destruction is beneficial and required it is permitted, but it is forbidden if excessive.

We also find in the Gemara (Shabbos 105b) that one of the Amora’im performed acts of destruction for educational purposes, demonstrating his extreme disapproval of his children’s improper behavior.

The Gemara writes that the Amora was careful to break vessels that were in any case due to be broken, leading some authorities to rule that it is forbidden to break intact vessels for educational purposes (Chinuch; Semak) – though it is clear from Tosafos (Kiddushin 32b) that he maintains that it is permitted to break even intact vessels for this purpose.

Financial Benefit Alone

Even for financial benefit alone, we find permission to cut down fruit trees. The Gemara clarifies this ruling, explaining (in the name of Ravina) that if the value of the tree as raw material (for building etc.) is greater than its value as a fruit tree, one is permitted to cut it down (Bava Kama 91b).

The Gemara demonstrates this principle from the case of Shmuel, who cut down a date palm that caused damage to a nearby vine (the taste of the wine was adversely affected by the palm tree). Another anecdote mentioned by the Gemara is the case of Rav Chisda, who cut down date palms because their yield was no longer profitable.

The Rambam notes these examples in his rulings on the subject (Laws of Kings 6:8-9), and rules in a responsum (Blau Edition no. 112) that it is permitted to cut down a palm tree that threatened to damage a Muslim mosque that stood nearby. (Another problem was that people threw stones at the tree, injuring passers-by.) In the words of the Rambam, “The Torah only prohibited cutting down in a destructive manner [as it says]: ‘You shall not destroy its trees.'”

Refraining from Cutting Down Trees

At the same time, the matter of cutting down trees should not be taken lightly.

The Gemara notes the case of Rava bar bar Chanan, who refused to cut down the trees at the edge of his field, in spite of the damage that they caused to his neighbor’s vine (birds used to come down upon the trees and damage the vine). Rava claimed that it was forbidden to cut down the trees, and even noted the words of Rav Chanina who said, “My son died only because he cut down a fig tree before its time” (Bava Basra 26a).

Tosafos explain that although it is permitted to cut down a damaging tree (as we saw above), there is room to distinguish between differing levels of damage: In the case of Rava the damage was not severe, and therefore he properly refused to cut down the trees.

Based on a ruling of the Rosh, the Taz (Yoreh De’ah 116:6) writes that it is permitted to cut down a fruit tree if a person needs the space – for instance for extending his house, or for some other purpose. However, the Netziv (Shut Meshiv Davar Vol. 2, no. 56) writes, based on the Rambam, that one should be stringent where possible (he later cites the Rosh, yet still leans towards stringency), and the Chasam Sofer (Yoreh De’ah 130) writes that where it is possible to relocate the tree with its roots, one should refrain from cutting it down.

In a similar vein, the Chavas Yair (no. 195) writes that one should not cut down fruit trees for reasons of comfort alone, and adds that wherever possible the branches should be cut and not the entire tree, even if they will have to be cut again every few years.

Saving from Waste

Does the prohibition of bal tashchis obligate us to actively seek to prevent waste and destruction?

A common related question is raised in connection with catered events, at which there is often plenty of food left over. Dealing with the leftovers and ensuring that they are not wasted (but rather given to charity) can involve a considerable expenditure of time and effort, and the question is whether there is an obligation on the baal ha-simcha to make the required arrangements.

A number of authorities write that the prohibition of bal tashchis refers to active waste and destruction, and that there is no formal obligation against passive waste – meaning that a person is not duty-bound to actively prevent destruction and waste (Minchas Yitzchak Vol. 3, no. 45; see also Chazon Ish on the Rambam, Laws of Kings 6:8).

Yet, although there is no full obligation to prevent the caterer from throwing out leftovers, it is certainly virtuous and proper to ensure that the leftover food is given to a charity organization (or otherwise used), and not wasted.

The Chinuch emphasizes that as the level of a person’s piety rises, so does his watchfulness for waste and destruction, and the effort he makes to prevent it: “The way of the righteous is to save things from waste by all available means.” Chazal teach that Yaakov Avinu was careful not to leave behind small and seemingly insignificant vessels, and we must likewise be wary of all wastefulness.

The Chinuch concludes that somebody who is careful of this will be treated by Hashem with the same disposition: Just as he guards the things of the world, so he will be forever guarded from all harm.

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