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Ba’al Tashchit - Do Not Destroy

Source Sheet by Gabe Greenberg
  1. (יט) כִּֽי־תָצ֣וּר אֶל־עִיר֩ יָמִ֨ים רַבִּ֜ים לְֽהִלָּחֵ֧ם עָלֶ֣יהָ לְתָפְשָׂ֗הּ לֹֽא־תַשְׁחִ֤ית אֶת־עֵצָהּ֙ לִנְדֹּ֤חַ עָלָיו֙ גַּרְזֶ֔ן כִּ֚י מִמֶּ֣נּוּ תֹאכֵ֔ל וְאֹת֖וֹ לֹ֣א תִכְרֹ֑ת כִּ֤י הָֽאָדָם֙ עֵ֣ץ הַשָּׂדֶ֔ה לָבֹ֥א מִפָּנֶ֖יךָ בַּמָּצֽוֹר׃ (כ) רַ֞ק עֵ֣ץ אֲשֶׁר־תֵּדַ֗ע כִּֽי־לֹא־עֵ֤ץ מַאֲכָל֙ ה֔וּא אֹת֥וֹ תַשְׁחִ֖ית וְכָרָ֑תָּ וּבָנִ֣יתָ מָצ֗וֹר עַל־הָעִיר֙ אֲשֶׁר־הִ֨וא עֹשָׂ֧ה עִמְּךָ֛ מִלְחָמָ֖ה עַ֥ד רִדְתָּֽהּ׃ (פ)

    (19) 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? (20) Only trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed; you may cut them down for constructing siegeworks against the city that is waging war on you, until it has been reduced.

  2. (יט) כי האדם עץ השדה. הרי כי משמש בלשון דלמא שמא האדם עץ השדה להכנס בתוך המצור מפניך להתיסר ביסורי רעב וצמא כאנשי העיר, למה תשחיתנו:

    (19) "Is a man a tree of the field?" Here, the word "ki" functions in the sense of "perhaps": "Perhaps a tree of the field is human, and should be included in the proscription [of the town] before you, and should suffer with hunger and thirst just like the human inhabitants of the city?" Why would you destroy it!?

  3. (כז) וַיִּבְרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים ׀ אֶת־הָֽאָדָם֙ בְּצַלְמ֔וֹ בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים בָּרָ֣א אֹת֑וֹ זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בָּרָ֥א אֹתָֽם׃
    (27) And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.
  4. תענית ז׳ א:ו׳-ז׳
    א"ל ר' ירמיה לר' זירא ליתי מר ליתני א"ל חלש לבאי ולא יכילנא לימא מר מילתא דאגדתא א"ל הכי אמר ר' יוחנן מאי דכתיב (דברים כ, יט) כי האדם עץ השדה וכי אדם עץ שדה הוא אלא משום דכתיב (דברים כ, יט) כי ממנו תאכל ואותו לא תכרת וכתיב אותו תשחית וכרת הא כיצד אם ת"ח הגון הוא ממנו תאכל ואותו לא תכרת ואם לאו אותו תשחית וכרת
    Rabbi Yirmeya once said to Rabbi Zeira: Let the Master come and teach a halakhic discourse. Rabbi Zeira said to him: My heart is weak and I cannot strain myself over a halakhic discourse. Rabbi Yirmeya replied to him: In that case, let the Master tell us a matter of aggada, which does not require as much effort. Rabbi Zeira said to him that Rabbi Yoḥanan said as follows: What is the meaning of that which is written: “For man is a tree of the field” (Deuteronomy 20:19)? And is man actually a tree of the field? Rather, it is because it is written earlier in the same verse: “You may eat of them but you may not cut them down,” and it is written in the next verse: “Them you may destroy and cut down” (Deuteronomy 20:20). This indicates that there are certain trees which may be cut down, while others may not be destroyed. How so? If a Torah scholar is worthy: “You may eat of them but you may not cut them down,” but if he is not worthy: “He you may destroy and cut down.”
  5. בבא קמא צ״א ב:י״ז-כ״א
    אמר רב דיקלא דטען קבא אסור למקצציה מיתיבי כמה יהא בזית ולא יקצצו רובע שאני זיתים דחשיבי א"ר חנינא לא שכיב שיבחת ברי אלא דקץ תאינתא בלא זמנה אמר רבינא ואם היה מעולה בדמים מותר תניא נמי הכי (דברים כ, כ) רק עץ אשר תדע זה אילן מאכל כי לא עץ מאכל הוא זה אילן סרק וכי מאחר שסופו לרבות כל דבר מה ת"ל כי לא עץ מאכל להקדים סרק למאכל
    § In connection with the prohibition against cutting down trees the Gemara notes: Rav said with regard to a palm tree that still produces fruit in the amount of a kav, that it is prohibited to cut it down due to the prohibition of: “When you shall besiege a city…you shall not destroy the trees” (Deuteronomy 20:19). The Gemara raises an objection to the statement of Rav from what was taught in a mishna (Shevi’it 4:10): How much fruit must be on an olive tree so that one may not cut it down? A quarter-kav. Why did Rav say that it must produce a full kav? The Gemara answers: Olive trees are different, since they are significant. Therefore, even a quarter-kav is valuable. Rabbi Ḥanina said: My son Shivḥat did not die for any reason other than that he cut down a fig tree before its time. Ravina says: But if the lumber was greater in monetary value than its fruits, it is permitted to chop it down, and this does not violate the prohibition against destroying a tree. This halakha is also taught in a baraita. The verse states: “Only the trees of which you know that they are not trees for food, them you may destroy and cut down” (Deuteronomy 20:20). “Only the trees of which you know”; this is referring to a tree that bears fruit used for food, and it is permitted to cut down this type of tree under certain circumstances. “That they are not trees for food”; this is referring to a barren tree. The Gemara asks: And since the baraita will ultimately include all types of trees, so that even a tree that produces fruit may be cut down, what, then, is the meaning when the verse states: “That they are not trees for food,” which indicates that it is permitted to cut down only a barren tree? The Gemara answers: It is to give precedence to cutting down a barren tree over a tree whose fruit is used for food.
  6. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, 19th cent. Germany, Horeb, #56

    "Do not destroy anything" is the first and most general call of God... If you should now raise your hand to play a childish game, to indulge in senseless rage, wishing to destroy that which you should only use, wishing to exterminate that which you should only exploit, if you should regard the beings beneath you as objects without rights, not perceiving God 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 God's call proclaims to you, "Do not destroy anything! Be a mentsh! Only if you use the things around you for wise human purposes, sanctified by the word of My teaching, only then are you a mentsh 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 but an animal and have no right to the things around you.

  7. Rabbi Yehezkel Landau, 18th cent. Poland, Responsa Noda B'Yehuda, YD 10

    Question: can Jews hunt?

    Answer: ...There is no issue of “bal tashchit” here, because one benefits from the skins of the animal, and its not done in a wantonly destructive way. The central prohibition of “bal tashchit” is in the chopping of fruit trees; that is, not to destroy something from which humans can benefit. This may apply to ownerless items; but to things which incur no loss to humans, it doesn't apply. Therefore, forest creatures, who provide no benefit to humans in their life, and only in their death provide skins and meat, how can we say “bal tashchit” is applicable?

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Source Sheet created on Sefaria by Gabe Greenberg