Parashat Shoftim - The Ban on Wanton Destruction
הרב שבתי סבתו | א אלול התשפ | 21.08.2020
הרב שבתי סבתו
Rabbi Shabtai Sabato
איסור השחתה ומהותו
The Ban on Wanton Destruction
From It You Shall Eat
The Torah portion of Shoftim features the well-known command known as bal tash'chit, the ban against wanton destruction. The Torah applies it specifically to fruit trees, as we read:
כִּי תָצוּר אֶל עִיר יָמִים רַבִּים לְהִלָּחֵם עָלֶיהָ לְתָפְשָׂהּ,
לֹא תַשְׁחִית אֶת עֵצָהּ לִנְדֹּחַ עָלָיו גַּרְזֶן, כִּי מִמֶּנּוּ תֹאכֵל וְאֹתוֹ לֹא תִכְרֹת ...
When you besiege a city for many days in making war against it,
do not destroy its tree-growth by cutting it with an axe,
for you eat thereof and you must not destroy it…
It appears that the Torah's ban is absolute and applicable whether or not one has a good reason for wanting to be rid of the tree. Even if we would wish to chop it down for building materials to help our war effort, we would not be allowed to.
On the other hand, the approach to non-fruit bearing trees is quite different:
רַק עֵץ אֲשֶׁר תֵּדַע כִּי לֹא עֵץ מַאֲכָל הוּא אֹתוֹ תַשְׁחִית וְכָרָתָּ ...
Only a tree that you know is not a fruit tree may you destroy and cut down…
This seems to tell us that the destruction of non-fruit trees is always permitted, even if there is no apparent reason for doing so.
The Sages, however, view this issue very differently. The Rambam (Maimonides) rules as follows:
It is forbidden to cut down fruit-bearing trees… But they can be cut if they are causing harm to other trees, or causing harm to others' fields, or are expensive to maintain… (Laws of Kings 6,8)
There are, then, several reasons why one may cut down a fruit tree: If it causes more damage than it is worth, or if it can be sold for furniture or some other purpose for more money than its fruit is worth. In all these cases, the prohibition of bal tash'chit does not apply.
And what about trees that do not produce fruit? The Rambam continues:
Whoever breaks utensils, tears clothes or destroys a building in a destructive manner is in violation of bal tash'chit. (6,10)
This means that non-fruit trees are also included in the ban!
Both of the above laws – regarding fruit trees and non-fruit trees – contrast sharply with the way we understood the verses. In the first case, we thought the ban was absolute, and in the second case, it appeared that the dispensation was absolute – yet neither is the case!
This shows us that the Torah's words need to be studied carefully, and certainly not superficially, in order to reveal their profoundly true meaning. Let us therefore do this with the above verses in order to understand the laws they teach us, as expressed in the Sages' conclusions.
What is Considered Destruction?
The Torah defines what types of destruction are permitted and forbidden, by using the example of a conquering army that surrounds and besieges a city. Though it needs to build ramparts and walls for its siege, the army may not do so from wood taken from fruit-trees, but rather only from trees that do not give fruit.
Once again, let us look at the verses: First we read the ban: “Do not destroy its tree[s] by cutting it with an axe, for you eat of it,” and then it continues with what is permitted: “Only the tree which you know are not trees for food, you may destroy.” The second verse appears to be redundant: If we may not cut down a tree because we eat of it, is it not obvious that when we cannot eat of it, it may be cut down? Given that the Torah has no unnecessary or extra words, why must it emphasize that non-fruit trees are permitted, if they are not included in the category of the forbidden?
This difficulty forces us to seek out the true message concealed here. It must be that by mentioning both the banned and permitted trees, the Torah is emphasizing a link between them, as follows: We must not destroy fruit-trees even for a good purpose – if, as per the next verse, there are non-fruit-trees nearby that can be used. But if no non-fruit-trees are available, then the Torah recognizes that there is no choice and we may use even the fruit-trees.
That is to say, if there are no non-fruit trees around, we are permitted to cut down fruit trees for any objective that is more important or necessary than the fruits themselves.
The principle is this: It’s not that fruit-trees are always forbidden to destroy, while non-fruit-trees are always permitted. Rather, the standard is optimal use of the trees at our disposal, without unnecessary and wasteful use. When the Torah speaks of “destruction,” it means “wanton destruction.”
If both fruit-tree and non-fruit-trees are available, it’s better to use the latter for our raw materials, and the former for food and nourishment. If fruit-trees are used for building when they don’t have to be, this is a waste of their real potential – and that is wanton destruction.
But if there are no other means available, then we may build the siege walls even from fruit-trees – because the importance of winning a war is inestimably more important than the value of a fruit.
By the same token, even non-fruit-trees used for beauty or shade may not be cut down arbitrarily, unless they are taking up valuable space or otherwise disturbing us.
Short, Rich Words
All of the above important information is transmitted to us in a few short words in the Gemara (Bava Kama 91b), based on the above verse:
Only a tree that you know - this refers to a fruit tree;
that it is not a fruit tree – a non-fruit bearing tree
may you destroy and cut down.
Why does the Gemara break up the verse into two parts so seemingly arbitrarily and artificially? The verse plainly means that one may cut down only a non-fruit tree, so why does the Gemara imply that fruit trees, too, are expendable?
Obviously, the Gemara does not capriciously derive laws that contradict the Torah's plain meaning. Rather, the Gemara based itself on the logic we employed above and derived that fruit-trees may sometimes be cut down. The Gemara divided the verse as it did simply as an educational tool, a way of remembering the law. In this case, it works as follows: The seemingly extra words "that you know" indicate to us that this is a case where the only tree that you know is a fruit tree – i.e., there are no non-fruit trees in the area. Under such circumstances, you are permitted to cut down the fruit tree.
But a new difficulty now presents itself, as the Gemara immediately asks: "What then is the difference between a non-fruit tree and a fruit tree, if both may be chopped down? Why does the Torah tell us 'that it is not a fruit tree', implying that a fruit tree may not be cut down?"
The Gemara answers: "The verse means to give precedence to the non-fruit tree over the fruit tree" - meaning that if there is a choice, chop down the non-fruit tree before considering the fruit tree.
The Gemara continues: "Is this absolute? Must we cut down the non-fruit tree even if it is worth more than the fruit tree?"
The Gemara answers: "No, the seemingly extra word רק, only, at the beginning of verse 20 tells us that there are exceptions" – namely, if the non-fruit tree is worth more than the fruit tree, you may chop down the latter and leave the non-fruit tree standing.
In short, the verse's seemingly extra words provide us with a clear order of priorities in cutting down trees:
- Don't cut down a fruit-tree if there is a non-fruit tree nearby – which may be cut down only for a necessary purpose (as hinted by the lack of a blanket dispensation).
- If there is no non-fruit tree, it is permitted to cut down the fruit tree, on condition that the needed purpose is worth more than the tree's fruits – whether it be militarily or even monetarily.
- Even if there is a non-fruit tree nearby, one may cut down the fruit tree for the above purpose if it is less valuable than the non-fruit tree.
We find a similar situation regarding priorities in the Book of Proverbs, where we read the following:
יְהַלֶּלְךָ זָר וְלֹא פִיךָ, נָכְרִי וְאַל שְׂפָתֶיךָ.
May a stranger praise you, and not your own mouth;
a foreigner, and not your lips.
The Sages in the Talmud note that the Prophet Ovadiah apparently did not follow this teaching. When Eliyahu asked him to undertake a dangerous mission to King Ahab, Ovadiah begged to be released from the job, saying, Your servant has feared G-d ever since I was a lad (Kings I 18,12), and in general listing many good deeds that he performed with great self-sacrifice. Does this not indicate that it is permissible to praise oneself?
One of the Amoraic Sages, Rava, resolves the issue by explaining that when one's good deeds are unknown to others, he is permitted to announce them himself. The reasoning is as follows:
The verse itself in Proverbs seems to be redundant. Once it tells us that a stranger must be the one to praise you, it goes without saying that you should not do so yourself! We must therefore understand the verse as referring only to when there is a stranger who can praise you; in such a case, let him do the work, while you remain silent. But if there is no one other than yourself, then you may speak complimentarily about yourself.
The Post-Bloodletting Warm-Up
Let us return to the subject of wanton destruction. The Torah's ban refers only to that: wanton destruction. Consider the Talmud's words about bloodletting, a common medical treatment in Talmudic and other times. Together with its benefits, this treatment is also liable to cause a chill, since one of the functions of blood is to maintain body temperature. Therefore, after a person performed this procedure, he would often light a fire to warm himself.
The Gemara tells us that the great Talmudic sage Shmuel, who was also a doctor, would use expensive wood for his post-bloodletting fire. Another great Sage, Rabba bar Nachmani, had an entire bench cut up and burnt for a fire to warm up by after his blood was let. His student Abaye asked him, “Isn’t this a violation of the ban on wanton destruction?” Rabba answered him, “No, for it is worse to have my body destroyed than the bench.”
What Rabba was saying was that the proper order of priorities is first to worry about one’s health before worrying about a loss of money. According to cold financial calculations, it would be better to wait and get cheaper wood – but since a delay might endanger his health, or even cost him his life, the ban on bal tash'chit does not apply, and it is better to burn up an expensive bench.
Here is another very interesting and instructive example of this idea. The Gemara in Tractate Shabbat (page 140b) quotes Rav Hisda as saying that if someone is able to eat barley-flour bread and it does not disgust him, then when he eats regular wheat bread, which is more expensive, he is in violation of bal tash'chit.
The other Sages of the generation did not agree with Rav Hisda, for the reason we just stated: Our concern for health is higher on our scale of priorities than is our concern for money, and therefore eating more expensive but healthful wheat bread is not considered a forbidden waste of resources.
A Jew once asked the Rambam a Halakhic question about a large palm tree growing in his yard. The man said that the branches reached out over the street, and that whenever they became full with dates, people would throw rocks at the branches in order to knock down the fruit. The problem was that the rocks would often hit people inside the yard... The man wanted to know if he could cut down the tree in order to avoid being hit by rocks - or would this be a case of bal tash'chit of a fruit-tree?
The Rambam replied that the tree may be cut down, as the prohibition does not apply if the chopping-down benefits him in some way or if the tree causes him damage. If the tree's location can be put to better use, or if the tree can be sold, or if it causes damage or financial losses – or even if he has a chance to sell or rent the land for future construction at a price higher than the fruits are worth – in all these and similar cases, the tree may be chopped down.
The Gemara in Kiddushin (page 32a) tells us that Rav Huna wanted to test his son’s anger threshold. He took an expensive silk shirt belonging to his son and tore it up in front of him, to see how he would react – in order to learn how to guide him in the future.
The Gemara raises some questions about Rav Huna’s behavior. First of all, if in fact his son would get angry at his father, wouldn’t his father be responsible for causing him to violate the commandment to honor one’s parents? The Gemara answers that Rav Huna waived his honor in advance, such that even if his son yelled at him, there would be no violation.
The Gemara then asks, what about the prohibition of bal tash'chit? Wasn’t this a case of wanton destruction of expensive clothing? The Gemara responds that Rav Huna tore it along the seams, such that there was no real damage; it could easily be repaired.
We can deduce from this answer that actually, bal tash'chit does apply in this case, and that testing someone’s character traits does not justify real destruction. This is apparently because one can achieve positive results in improving character traits using other methods.
The Gemara tells of another Sage, Rav Acha bar Yaakov, who would throw broken pieces of pottery on the ground, in order to instill a measure of fearful respect amidst his household. However, he did not break pottery for this purpose, but rather used pieces that were already broken. Here, again, we see that there is no justification for using educational methods that touch on bal tash'chit, if the same effect can be achieved otherwise.
Is Man a Tree?
The passage on bal tash'chit includes a phrase that many commentators sought to explain:
... לֹא תַשְׁחִית אֶת עֵצָהּ לִנְדֹּחַ עָלָיו גַּרְזֶן, כִּי מִמֶּנּוּ תֹאכֵל וְאֹתוֹ לֹא תִכְרֹת
כִּי הָאָדָם עֵץ הַשָּׂדֶה לָבֹא מִפָּנֶיךָ בַּמָּצוֹר.
… do not destroy its tree-growth by cutting it with an axe,
for you eat thereof and you must not destroy it;
is the tree of the field a man, to go before you into the siege?
What is the meaning of the last part of the verse? It would seem that we can explain it to mean that you should not think that if you build a siege out of fruit-trees, your enemy – whose sustenance depends on the fruits of the tree – will be forced to surrender and come out towards you from amid the siege.
What is the message of bal tash'chit? The Torah wishes to educate us to the realization that every object in the world has a purpose. No item was created for naught, and Hashem in His infinite wisdom has designed a purpose for everything. We, too, are commanded to follow this example, by helping to ensure that the world continues to work properly and efficiently, and by adding construction and not desolation.
Every wasteful act, and every act of harm to our natural environment – and certainly to another human being – creates distance between man and G-d.
Everything we do must be purposeful, and we must certainly not destroy. Wanton destruction shows disdain for that which G-d has created, and is akin to a declaration that His creations have no real value. Very practically speaking, even leaving electric appliances running for no reason is not allowed: Mar Zutra states (Shabbat 67b) that one must not leaven an oil lamp partially open, thus causing it to burn out faster, or uncover a jar of naphtha oil, causing it to evaporate more quickly. He says that these acts are violations of bal tash'chit, in that he is wasting his oil without cause.
Destruction was one of the features of the generation that was destroyed in the flood; because of its destructive sins, the earth was overrun with water, and the people were totally wiped out – except for Noach, who took full responsibility for everything that was left.
וַתִּשָּׁחֵת הָאָרֶץ לִפְנֵי הָאֱ-לֹהִים וַתִּמָּלֵא הָאָרֶץ חָמָס.
The earth was corrupt before G-d, and the earth became full of robbery.
The Torah’s ban on bal tash'chit, according to what we have explained, educates us to constantly weigh and review our order of priorities. We must always examine what is more important, and what is less so. We must set up a clear and consistent scale of values by which to decide what takes precedence over what, in every case.
Let us conclude with a verse from the Torah, which emphasizes that Hashem will never destroy Israel or harm us for no reason:
כִּי אֵ-ל רַחוּם ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ לֹא יַרְפְּךָ וְלֹא יַשְׁחִיתֶךָ
וְלֹא יִשְׁכַּח אֶת בְּרִית אֲבֹתֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לָהֶם.
For Hashem your G-d is a merciful god, He will not leave you
and will not destroy you,
and will not forget the covenant He made with your forefathers.