The Torah and thereafter the Rabbis were very aware that Tikkun Olam, mending the world, is preceded conceptually by the mitzvah to refrain from destroying the world. Human beings in war as well as in economic exploitation of the land may tend to destroy or at least betray the trust God gave them from which humankind is meant to survive and to benefit for generations. Appreciating the value of natural resources and human resources, harboring them as useful goods for human flourishing, is conceptually prior to distributing them to all who need them. Managing one’s needs and one’s resources and distinguishing between wants or luxuries and needs is essential for individuals and the community in order to redistribute the wealth to the poor and preserve resources for future generations.
Let us briefly examine the rabbinic principle of “do not destroy” that appears in the Torah in the context of human wars, especially those fought for conquest and spoils, rather than for survival in a total war of defense.
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 into the besieged city? Only trees that you know do 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 reduced. (Deuteronomy 20:19-20)
From the prohibition of the destruction of trees – fruit trees – in war, the Rabbis developed their ecological legislation and rationale as well as its implicit limitations. For example, King Hezekiah stopped the fountains in Jerusalem by blocking the Gihon spring during the war against the Assyrian siege by Sennacherib (II Chronicles 32:2-4, 30). The Rabbis, who regarded denying water to a fruit tree as equivalent to chopping it down (Sifrei), declared Hezekiah a sinner (TB Pesahim 56a).When the prophet Elisha counseled another king to pursue a “scorched earth” policy (II Kings 3:17-20), Maimonides considered this a prima facie violation of the Torah.
The Rabbis treated the fruit trees’ immunity from destruction in time of war as the enunciation of a general principle that transcended the value of nature and included human artifacts:
And not only trees but whoever breaks vessels, tears clothing, wrecks that which is built up, stops fountains, or wastes food in a destructive manner transgresses the commandment of b’al tashkhit (‘you shall not destroy’)” (Maimonides, Laws of Kings 6:8)
So too it is forbidden to kill an animal for no benefit or to offer exposed water (presumably polluted or poisoned) to livestock. The responsibility to preserve valuable resources rests not only on the individual owner but on all Israel. Resources both in the public and the private domain must be protected, and even those in ownerless or wilderness areas:
Rabbi Joseph phrases a broader principle: ‘One should not spill water out of his pool at a time when others need it’ (TB Yevamot 44a). That is, one should never spoil an object or an opportunity even where the gain or loss refers completely to another individual and not to oneself.
The purpose of the commandment of “do not destroy,” b’al tashkhit, is to train humans to love the good by abstaining from all destructiveness:
For this is the way of the pious…those who love peace, are happy when they can do good to others and bring them close to Torah and will not cause even a grain of mustard to be lost from the world whereas the wicked rejoice at the destruction of the world. (Sefer HaHinukh, Mitzvah #529).
As it says in the Talmud, “Nothing that the Lord created in the world was superfluous or in vain” (T.B. Shabbat 77b), hence human beings must not depreciate or destroy anything of value. Therefore even indirect destruction of fruit trees, such as diverting an irrigation ditch which will deny the tree its flourishing, is prohibited (Sifre to Deuteronomy 20:19). From this one may generalize a principle relevant to public policy – to minimize collateral damage done to the environment through otherwise valuable activities, like developing polluting industries or turning forest into agricultural land.
However the Rabbis did not treat the law in a literalist way nor restrict its application to protection of nature out of romantic worship of nature over human artifice. Human benefit was most important, for God created the world for human use – “God said: Here I have given you all the vegetation … and all the trees which bear fruit … for you to eat” (Gen. 1:29). Therefore, Norman Lamm observes:
Non-fruit-bearing trees are exempt from the law of b’al tashhit, as are fruit trees that have aged and whose crop is not worth the value of the trees as lumber (TB Baba Kama 91b). Also, fruit trees of inferior quality growing amidst and damaging to those that are better and more expensive, may be uprooted (TB BK 92a). Commercial values do play a central role in the law. Thus the fruit tree may be destroyed if the value of the crop is less than its value as lumber as mentioned above or if the place of the tree is needed to build a house thereon. Such permission is not granted, according to the later authorities, for reasons of esthetics or convenience, such as landscaping.However, the economic interest is not overriding; it must yield to considerations of health so that in case of illness and when no other means are available to obtain heat, fruit trees may be cut down and used for firewood (TB Shabbat 140b). Even when the criterion is a commercial one, it is clear that it is the waste of an object of economic value per se that the halakhah considers unlawful.
Norman Lamm notes that the Rabbis boycotted socially those who disregarded practices that waste the resources of Creation and even attributed premature deaths to Divine punishment for such ecological sins:
The Talmud relates that Rabbi Hanina attributed the untimely death of his son to the latter’s cutting down a fruit tree prematurely (TB Baba Kama 92b). The Rabbis hesitated to pay a social call to a dying scholar who, for medicinal purposes, kept a goat in his house in order to drink its milk: the goat despoils the grazing land and hence is to be banished from such pastures (TB Baba Kama 89a). The Tabernacle was built of acacia wood (Exod. 25) [not fruit trees] to teach man that if he wishes to build a house for himself, he should not despoil fruit trees for this purpose (Exodus Rabbah 35). Even though one is halakhically permitted to destroy a fruit tree, if he wishes to build his home on its place, nevertheless, according to Sefer Hasidim of Yehuda Hasid he should refrain from doing so.
One of the Babylonian Rabbis most devoted to a personal practice of minimizing his “carbon footprint” so-to-speak was Rav Hisda.
Rav Hisda used to say: One who can manage by eating [inexpensive] barley bread, but instead eats wheat bread, has violated the mitzvah of “do not destroy” – b’al tashkhit.“Rav Papa used to say: One who can manage to drink beer but instead drinks wine has violated the mitzvah of “do not destroy” – b’al tashkhit. (TB Shabbat 140b)
While not favoring ascetic practices that damage oneself, which are forbidden, Rav Hisda holds that one must preserve goods that do not replenish themselves naturally, while preferring to consume those that do not. Thus, the human body can regenerate itself after receiving some scratches, while human artifacts like a garment may suffer permanent damage:
Rav Hisda, whenever he had to walk between thorns and thistles, used to lift up his garments [so that his skin, instead of the cloth, would be ripped], because my body heals itself, but garments do not heal [i.e. repair] themselves. (TB BK 91b)
Perhaps this is akin to a principle of sustainability since the human body has the power to regenerate itself, while the garments do not. However the Talmud refused to make Rav Hisda’s ecological practices into a general norm, for they held that preserving one’s body comes first. This is especially clear regarding health needs, preserving human life takes precedence over minimizing use of natural or man-made resources.
Rav Judah: A footstool was broken up for [a fire to warm] Rabbah [who was recovering from illness or bloodletting]. But Abaye said to Rabbah: But you are infringing the prohibition ‘do not destroy’?!Rabbah retorted: The mitzvah, ’do not destroy,’ applies to conservation of my body and my body takes precedence over conserving the footstool. (TB Shabbat 129a)
The ecological aspects of Tikkun Olam and the prohibition of destroying the world are not, for the Rabbis, about preserving nature at the expense of human life, but cultivating a sustainable civilization for human benefit.