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Bal Tashchit: Waste Not Want Not

Shevat 5780 | February 2020
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Bal Tashchit: Waste Not Want Not

Bal Tashchit (do not waste) is not an easy mitzvah in modern Jewish households. How often do I make too much food? Wouldn’t it be easier to use paper plates? Fortunately, my husband is a positive influence on the subject of waste in our home. He is happy to clean the dishes (usually!) so that we don’t use disposables and he nurtures a compost in our garden (a.k.a “Oscar”) which recycles degradable food back into the soil. What is the source and scope of the mitzvah to not be wasteful?

The mitzvah of bal tashchit is derived from sefer Devarim, which instructs us not to destroy fruit-bearing trees during a situation of wartime. The Torah asks, “Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city?” (Devarim 20:19), seeming to mean that we should be careful not to destroy trees unnecessarily since they are defenseless. The midrash halacha (Sifre) explains that humans must not wantonly destroy trees since human lives depend on them. Based on Talmudic sources, the Rambam significantly widens the scope of this mitzvah stating that bal tashchit applies to all times a tree is cut down for destructive purposes, not only during battle and to all forms of needless destructiveness including burning clothing or breaking objects for no reason. 

There are exceptions to this prohibition. For instance, the mourner does kriyah, (rends a garment) even though it is somewhat destructive, since it has a purpose. Yet, the Talmud limits the amount one should tear because of the concern for bal tashchit. 

The Shulchan Aruch mentions bal tashchit in two places: when instructing not to bury the dead with too many garments and with regard to treating food respectfully. Interestingly, these are the areas where the modern world struggles with overindulgence, given how easy it is to obtain food and clothing. Tu b’Shvat in particular is a day to be mindful of this mitzvah and think about ways each individual can take small steps to preserve our world.

 

Footnotes:

  1. This is Rashi’s understanding, but there are other interpretations. 
  2. Sifre, Devarim 20:19.
  3. Mishneh Torah, hilchot melachim u’milchamot 6:8. 
  4. Based on the Talmud which includes cases of “bal tashchit” applying to objects and clothing (Shabbat 129a and Kiddushin 32a)
  5. Bava Kama 91b.
  6. Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 349:4.
  7. Shulchan Aruch, Orach Hayim 170-171.

 

 

Karen Miller Jackson

is a Jewish educator and writer, who studies and teaches at Matan HaSharon and recently completed Matan HaSharon’s Morot l’Halakha program. She has an MA in Talmud and Midrash from NYU.