The Talmudic law bal tashchit ("do not destroy") is the most predominant Jewish precept cited in contemporary Jewish writings on the environment. This article gives an extensive survey of the roots and different interpretations of the precept from within the tradition.

The precept of bal tashchit has its roots in the Biblical command not to destroy fruit-bearing trees while laying a siege to a warring city. The Rabbis expanded this injunction into the general precept of bal tashchit, a ban on wanton destruction. Such a precept was interpreted in different ways, along a continuum whose poles I have described the minimalist and maximalist position. In the minimalist position, interpreters limit the application of bal tashchit to only those situations in which the destruction of natural resources and property cannot be justified in terms of its economic or esthetic worth to the Jewish community. In the maximalist position, interpreters expand the application of bal tashchit to any situation in which nature and property are destroyed for something other than human needs....

The origin of the principle of bal tashchit is in the attempt to explicate one specific Biblical passage from Deuteronomy which is describing what constitutes proper behavior during time of war. I include two translations of the original Hebrew, in order to emphasize the difficulty in understanding the Hebrew verses, and the interpretative possibilities which emerge from the ambiguity of the text itself.

Jewish Publication Society translation

Deut. 20: 19-20

King James Bible translation

When in your 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 trees of the field human to withdraw before you under siege? Only trees that you know to not yield food may be destroyed; you may cut them down for constructing siege works against the city that is waging war on you, until it has been destroyed.

When thou shalt besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, thou shall not destroy the trees thereof by forcing an ax against them: for thou mayest eat of them, the thou shalt not cut them down for the tree of the field is man's life to employ them in the siege. Only the trees which thou knowest that they be not trees for food, thou shalt destroy and cut them down; and thou shall build bulwarks against the city that maketh war with thee, until it be subdued.

The passage deals with proper ethical behavior with regard to trees during wartime. Fruit-bearing trees should not be chopped down. The reason behind such a prohibition seems to be cryptically supplied by the verse itself. In the King James translation we read "for the tree of the field is a man's life," implying some causal relationship between the human being and the trees, such that cutting down the tree is, in effect damaging the human being as well. Yet the JPS translation offers a different interpretation of the verse: "Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you under siege?" It translates the verse as a question rather than a statement. It implies a rhetorical question which denies a relationship between human begins and trees: trees are not human beings and therefore should not be a victim of their disputes.

The discrepancy among the translations echoes medieval commentators' varying interpretations of the verse. The JPs translation seems to be agreeing with Rashi's interpretation of the verse. Rashi accentuates the categorical distance between the human being and the tree to create a rationale for why the tree should not be cut:

"For the man is the tree of the field"
(Deut. 20:19)

The word ki is used here in the sense of "perhaps, should ..." Should the tree be considered to be (like) a human being, able to run away from you into the besieged town, to suffer their the agonies of thirst and hunger, like the townspeople — if not, why then destroy it? (Commentary on Dt. 20:19)

Rashi's interpretation of the verse is based on his understanding of the Hebrew word ki as being interrogative, turning our text into a rhetorical question. Is the tree of the field to be part of the same (moral) world as the human being? No. The tree of the field is not the target of the siege; the people of the town are. No one has the moral right to destroy the trees because of a dispute among human beings. The trees must not be destroyed because of a dispute among humans.

Rashi in effect has argued for an environmental ethic which views (fruit) trees as having existence independent if human wants and needs. In spite of its strong anthropomorphic language, Rashi's position gives ethical consideration to the trees although it is still not clear why that should be so. The case is accentuated by the setting of the verse itself. In wartime, it is difficult to maintain an ethical outlook on any issue how much the more so with regard to nature...

Yet Rashi seems to have taken the verse out of context. For if we accept Rashi's interpretation "is the human being a tree of the field?" how we to understand the very next verse, in which permission is given by God to cut down non-fruit-bearing trees? What is the distinction between fruit-bearing and non-fruit-bearing trees that protects on and not the other? Rashi's interpretation does not offer am means for distinguishing. Indeed, the text asks if whether a human being is the tree of the field, whereas Rashi asks whether the tree of the field is like a human being. Rashi's reversal of the syntax of the sentence helps to support his interpretation but it is not supported by the original phrasing of the text.

Ibn Ezra's (1089-1164) interpretation, later echoed by the King James version, attacks Rashi's position on both grammatical and logical grounds and offers an alternative possibility:

"In my opinion,,, this is the correct meaning: that from (the trees) you get food, therefore don't cut them down, 'for man is the tree of the field,' that is our lives as human beings depend on trees." (commentary on Deut. 20:19)

Human responsibility for the tree is based on human dependence upon the tree. Trees are a source of food, and thus cutting them down reduces one's food supply for after the siege...

Ibn Ezra's explanation makes sense in the context of the verse. Fruit trees are not to be chopped down for their importance as food for human beings is clear. Non-fruit-bearing trees, on the other hand, have not immediate importance for the human being, and therefore it is permissible to chop them down. The prooftext "because the human being is a tree of the field" shows us our link to the natural world, and how our abuses of nature can result in abuse of ourselves.

Eilon Schwartz directs the Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership, dedicated to the fostering of an emerging social-environment vision for Israeli society. He also teaches at the Melton Center for Jewish education of the Hebrew University and writes on the philosophy of environmental and Jewish education.


From: Tree Earth and Torah: A Tu B'shvat Anthology edited by Ari Elon, Naomi Mara Hyman and Arthur Waskow, JPS 1999; pp. 115-117.

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