8/20/202313 min read

Wasting Resources


The reasonable use of the Earth’s natural resources water, soil, wildlife, forests, and minerals is a major goal of the Torah.

Natural resources are a vital part of sustaining human life, and conservation measures are needed to control, manage, and preserve them so that they can be used and appreciated to the fullest. Freshwater habitats must be kept clean for drinking and for recreational activities. Soils must be kept fertile, without the accumulation of toxic chemicals from pesticides or herbicides, to provide fruits and vegetables. Forests must be managed in a manner that can provide not only lumber and pulpwood for paper products but also homes for native wildlife. The use of oil, coal, and minerals important for an industrial society must be carefully monitored to be certain that the supply does not dwindle too rapidly. The proper conservation of these natural resources is of key concern in maintaining the balance of nature in a world with a large human population. Not wasting God’s creation is a fundamental of Jewish philosophy and is halakhically derived from the mitzvah of bal tashhit not to wantonly destroy fruit trees.

This article is divided into the following sub-headings:

1. Sources.

2. Applications of bal tashhit.

3. Destroying for a constructive purpose.

4. Utilizing edible foods for other purposes.

5. Expensive acquisitions versus inexpensive.

6. Wasting natural resources.

1. Sources

The Torah in Deuteronomy 20:191 commands the Jewish army besieging an enemy city not to uproot any fruit trees (bal tashhit). The Talmud2 explains that this mitzvah not only applies in time of war, but that any time a person cuts down a fruit tree in wanton destruction he or she transgresses this prohibition.3 This mitzvah is the heading for a very broad range of prohibitions involving the waste of resources for no useful purpose.

Before David became king he was hunted by his father-in-law King Saul, who was jealous of him and suspected him of treason. David was hiding in a cave4 and King Saul came into the same cave. David’s warriors advised him to kill Saul. Instead of killing Saul, David cut off a corner of his cloak. Later, David proved his loyalty to Saul by showing him the piece of the cloak that he had cut and tells him that if he had so desired he would have killed him. The fact that he had not was proof that he had no intention of rebelling against him. King Saul was then pacified for a short time. The Book of Kings commences with the following line: “And King David was old and even though he was covered with blankets he was still cold.” The Talmud5 links these two incidents. The reason why King David’s blankets would not warm him was because he had destroyed a garment!

Rashi, quoting the Midrash in Parashat Vayishlah, says that Jacob our forefather, after he had crossed his family and his belongings over the stream, went back in the middle of the night to collect a few small utensils that he had left behind. So great was the care that Jacob had for his belongings that he had earned with honest sweat and toil, that he was not prepared to lose anything that God had blessed him with. This Midrash is teaching us that we must take tremendous care with the bounty that the Almighty blesses us with, and not waste anything useful.

The Broad Prohibition of Bal Tashhit - Wasteful Destruction

From Tosaphot6 it appears that the prohibition of bal tashhit not only applies to fruit trees, but is a Torah law that applies to other kinds of waste too.

However, from the language of Rambam7 in his Mishneh Torah, it appears that other types of waste are forbidden only by rabbinical ordinance and not by Torah law. The Rambam quotes the classic prohibition of not uprooting productive fruit trees and then goes on to say that:

Not only fruit trees are prohibited to be uprooted, but whoever breaks vessels; tears clothes;8 destroys a building; blocks a stream; or wastes food;9 transgresses bal tashhit from the rabbis. (All these actions are prohibited if they are done in a wasteful manner.)

From the language of Rambam, it appears that destruction is forbidden only if an action, even an indirect one, was involved. For instance, cutting off the water supply to a fruit tree causing it to wither and die10 is forbidden even though this is an indirect action. Discarding edible food or drink for no constructive purpose is prohibited. However, if by storing the food for a long period it became stale and inedible, since no action direct or indirect was involved there is no transgression of bal tashhit.

2. Applications of Bal Tashhit

The Talmud in Baba Kamah 91b11 quotes an opinion that a person who does keriya - rends his garments for a deceased relative more than the required four inches (tefah) transgresses bal tashhit and a person who injures himself is also in violation of this law.

Shulhan Arukh discusses bal tashhit explicitly in two different locations:

1) In Orah Hayyim 170:2212 he discusses a person who drank from a cup of wine and was unable to finish the whole cup. He states that the person should wipe the rim of the cup (to avoid disgust) and give it to someone else to finish, but he is not allowed to pour the wine out so as not to transgress the prohibition of ‘bal tashhit.’13 However, if he was drinking a glass of water and some water was left over, he may use that water to wash his cup.

2) In Yoreh Deah 349:414 he discusses a custom that was prevalent in the time of the Talmud of throwing various belongings of the deceased into the grave with his body. He comments: “Whoever increases throwing vessels into the grave transgresses the law of bal tashhit.”

The Talmud15 discusses the reason why the mouth of the shofar blown on fast days was plated with silver and not plated with gold. One of the reasons offered by the Talmud is that: ‘the Torah is concerned about the financial well-being of the Jews.’ To gold plate the shofar, which is used for the tremendous mitzvah of arousing the people of Israel to teshuvah and good deeds, is considered inconsequential when juxtaposed with the concept of not wasting money.

The Talmud in Menahot16 discusses the making of the twelve loaves of bread, which were kept in the temple. It specifies that they had to be made with fine flour. This flour could be made on-site to save expense.17 Similarly, in order to save money, the oil of crushed olives was allowed to be used to make the meal offerings, even though it had residues of crushed olive in it, whereas only thoroughly pure oil was allowed for the menorah.18

The Talmud in Avodah Zarah 11a discusses the custom, prevalent at that time, of burning expensive garments and articles of clothing in honor of Jewish Kings and Princes who had passed away. Although this was tremendously wasteful, the rationale was to show extensive honor to the deceased. The Talmud comments that this type of burning of expensive items was allowed only for Kings or Princes, and not for ordinary people. It was prohibited because of the law of not wasting (bal tashhit). This prohibition is codified in the Shulhan Arukh.19

Rabbi Kook,20 in his book of responsa entitled Daat Cohen,21 discussed the upgrading and modernization of a certain cemetery. He emphasized that a lot of money should not be spent, because it is a waste of public funds and is a transgression of bal tashhit since the Torah is concerned with the financial well-being of the Jews. Today we need to spend more on important charitable causes that focus on the living. It is obvious that all the needs of the living should come before those of the dead.22

The Talmud Ketubot 8b states that the Rabbis praised Rabban Gamliel for abolishing the custom of wasting tremendous amounts of money on the burial of the dead.23 Similarly it is forbidden to hang food on a coffin to honor the deceased, because of the prohibition of being wasteful.24

The general rule in Jewish tradition has always been to do a lot of charity with the living instead of expending major expenses on the deceased.

3. Destroying for a Constructive Purpose

There is no prohibition of bal tashhit if the destructive act has a constructive purpose. For example: A person is allowed to chop down a fruit tree that is causing damage to other more productive trees. Similarly, if the value of its wood is greater than the value of its fruit, it is allowed to chop the fruit tree down for its wood.25 If the person needs the property on which the tree is growing for the construction of a house that is more valuable than the tree;26 or if the tree was obstructing his windows and caused the interior of the house to be dark and gloomy;27 he would be allowed to chop the tree down.28 The same principle would also apply to other things. For example, if a person was feeling cold and would have no other combustible material available other than expensive furniture, he would be allowed to chop it up for firewood.29

Rabbi Tzvi Pesah Frank30 discusses whether it is allowed to uproot fruit trees in order to build a sukkah in the space they were standing.31 He quotes a general rule32 that if a person destroys something for the sake of performing a mitzvah it is not considered wanton waste, but a productive waste, in which case the prohibition of bal tashhit is superseded by the performance of a mitzvah.

The source of this rule seems to be the mitzvah of keriah - the tearing of a garment on hearing of the loss of a close relative.33 This rule would appear to be based on the well-known dictum that ‘a positive commandment pushes aside a negative commandment.’34 However, this is true only if the mitzvah cannot be performed any other way. If a person can build his sukkah elsewhere or use his friend’s sukkah for the mitzvah it would seem that he would not be allowed to cut down any fruit trees to build a sukkah.

Sefer Hasidim35 discusses a case where a sofer wished to bury a perfectly kosher page of a sefer Torah, because he was not happy with the beauty and quality of the writing and he desired to rewrite that particular page. Sefer Hassidim concludes that the sofer would be allowed to bury the page even though this would appear to be wasteful and a transgression of ‘bal tashhit,’ since there is a purpose of beautifying the Torah.36 His rationale seems to be that there is no prohibition of bal tashhit if the waste has a constructive purpose.37

4. Utilizing Edible Food for Other Purposes

The Talmud, Berakhot 50b, states that it is prohibited to place raw meat on a piece of bread, to place a cup of liquid on a piece of bread, or to lean a plate of food against bread lest the bread be ruined and go to waste.

Rambam codifies these laws in his Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Berakhot (7:9) he declares that one may not destroy foodstuffs in a “humiliating and disdainful manner.”

Magen Avraham, Orah Hayyim 171, bases himself on the above Rambam to argue that use of food to satisfy a particular need is not to be equated with “humiliating and disdainful” destruction. The Talmud38 explicitly sanctions pouring wine on the floor to produce a fragrant aroma in ones residence and permits anointing the body with olive oil. However, in Shabbat 50b the Talmud states that it is forbidden to squeeze olives in order to cleanse the hands because the olives are thereby rendered unappetizing and are thereby wasted. Magen Avraham claims that this is only prohibited because the same purpose can be achieved with soap. The Magen Avraham concludes that food products may be used for uses other than eating if other more economical means of satisfying such needs are unavailable. When other less expensive materials are available, use of food products is wasteful and hence “disgraces the food.”

Mishnah Berurah (171:4) accepts the principle that food be used for other forms of human benefit as long as “it is the way of the world to use food for that purpose.” Kaf Hahayyim, popular Sephardic authority (171:5), follows the opinion of Magen Avraham that food products may be used for purposes other than eating if other more economical means of satisfying such needs are unavailable.

The Talmud in Taanit 20b says that Rav Huna would not give food to animals that was fit for human consumption.39 Rashi gives two reasons to prohibit the feeding of food that is edible by humans to animals.

1) Because he is denying the goodness that God blessed him with (by giving his food to the animal).

2) Because ‘the Torah was concerned about the financial well-being of Israel’ (and God does not want us to waste our financial resources).

Rema40 cites a custom to pour some wine from the Havdalah cup onto the ground. The rationale of this custom is that “any home where wine is not poured like water lacks a sign of a blessing.”41 Magen Abraham42 notes that the amount of wine that overflows from the cup should be minimized so as to avoid a wasteful destruction of food. The Maharshal goes further and states that this custom should be abolished because of the disgrace caused to the edible wine. The widespread custom today is to pour wine in a vessel to extinguish the Havdalah candle and to place some on our eyelids.

5. Expensive Acquisitions Versus Inexpensive

The Talmud in Shabbat 140a43 discusses the idea of eating expensive types of food when a person can get by with inexpensive varieties of meals. The Talmud concludes that since the expensive varieties may be more nutritious, they should be partaken of in order not to waste one’s physical health and strength. From this we see that the principle of bal tashhit applies to food and also to physical well-being. A person who does not look after himself and causes weakness or injury to him or herself transgresses this mitzvah. Thus, the implication of the Talmud is that if the food is more expensive, but not in any way healthier, it would be a transgression of bal tashhit to buy it.

If the food is not only more expensive, but also injurious44 to one’s health, it would be prohibited to purchase and partake of it. A person who would buy and partake of expensive and harmful food would doubly transgress bal tashhit: (a) For wasting money. (b) For wasting health.

This kind of logic can be applied to a myriad of other applications. Are we allowed to buy expensive items when we can get by with inexpensive items?

We all need to buy clothes, furniture, appliances, a house, a car and even take vacations. May we buy the best and latest designer clothes, or should we make do with the regular department store variety? May we stay in a five-star resort, or should we make do with a reasonable less luxurious hotel? May we take an exotic vacation in a distant land as opposed to a much cheaper, more local vacation that will accomplish the same goals of revitalizing the body and mind? May we buy the latest model car, with all the extras and latest gadgets, even though our old car is still working perfectly? May we spend a fortune on lavish weddings, bar mitzvahs or other affairs? Does aesthetics or any other intangible factor play a role? Does a Jew have to be purely utilitarian?

The Rambam in chapter five of his famous introduction to Perek Helek known as ‘Shemonah Perakim’ discusses this issue:

If you keep the pursuit of wisdom in mind, you will abandon your customary activities and talk much less. Whoever follows this way of life will not decorate his walls with golden ornaments or trim his garments with golden fringes, unless such luxuries are intended to cheer the soul and banish its sickness so that it will become clear and pure and once again be receptive to wisdom.

This is what the Sages had in mind when they said45 “It is proper that a Torah scholar should have a beautiful dwelling, an attractive wife, and the comforts of home.” For a person becomes tired and his mind dulled by continual mental concentration on difficult problems. Just as the body becomes exhausted from hard labor and needs revitalization through rest and leisure, so too, the mind needs to relax by contemplating works of art and other beautiful objects. In this regard, it is written,46 “When the Rabbis became exhausted from studying, they would engage in lighthearted conversation.” From this perspective, we may say that pictures and embroideries are not immoral or unnecessary when they serve to enhance a person’s furniture and clothing (and thus cheer the mind so that it will become clear and pure and be receptive to wisdom.)

For certain people aesthetics are very important in that they add to a sense of well-being and peace of mind. For those people it would be allowed to spend extra for an aesthetically pleasing object as opposed to a purely functional one. However, this matter is not entirely clear. Should a person be limited to a minimum even in the aesthetically pleasing?

Does status have anything to do with it? Is it a waste of money and a transgression of bal tashhit to splurge on the lavish and unnecessary from a purely utilitarian perspective, even though the status of the individual may be enhanced by this expenditure? Rambam in his Mishneh Torah47 discusses the ideal kind of behavior expected from a Torah scholar. He sheds some light on this issue as follows:

A Torah scholar should conduct his business affairs in a proper manner. He should eat, drink and sustain himself and his household according to his means. He should not strain himself too much in this regard (by incurring major expenses). A person should not eat meat until he really desires it (because of the expense involved, even though it was considered at that time to be very nourishing.)48 It is enough for a healthy person to eat meat every Friday night. However, if he is wealthy he may partake of meat every day. The Rabbis commanded us49 that a person should always eat less then his status would allow for, he should dress according to his status and he should honor his wife and children more than his status.

We see from this the importance of a person living within his financial means, we also see that status50 is not to be disregarded when making financial decisions. However, out of common courtesy to one’s friends and neighbors51 one should not be ostentatious and flaunt wealth. Unfortunately there are many people who are forced to borrow in order to spend to keep up the charade of their status. This causes untold suffering and grief and is unacceptable.

6. Wasting Natural Resources52

Is there a mitzvah to buy a more energy-efficient car as opposed to a ‘gas guzzler,’ all other things being equal? Do we violate bal tashhit when we set our thermostat above 68 degrees (Fahrenheit) in the winter or below it in the summer? Surely by wasting the earth’s natural resources a person transgresses ‘bal tashhit.’ A person should recycle as much of their garbage as possible, so as not to deplete and waste the earth’s resources. In the beginning of Genesis (2:15) shortly after God created man, He placed him in the Garden of Eden ‘to work it and to guard it.’ It is our responsibility to guard the world’s diminishing natural resources.

The Midrash53 stresses this idea:

When the Holy One, blessed be He, created the first man, He took him and had him pass before all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him: “Do you see My handiwork, how fine and excellent they are. All that I created was created for you. Be careful not to ruin and destroy My world, for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you.”

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch54 emphasizes:

Not yours is the earth, but you belong to the earth, to respect it as Divine soil and to deem every one of its creatures, a creature of God, as your fellow being. “Consider the things around you. I lent them to you for wise use only; never forget that I lent them to you. As soon as you use them unwisely, be it the greatest or the smallest, you commit treachery against My world, you commit murder and robbery against My property, you sin against Me!” This is what God calls unto you...


There may be no explicit laws in the Shulhan Arukh or any other Code of Jewish Law that would prohibit any of the latter cases. However, the underlying philosophical principle is clear - don’t waste valuable resources for no reason.

The golden rule in this area of our lives should be: ‘Waste not, want not.’ We must take tremendous care with the bounty55 that the Almighty blesses us with, and not waste anything useful. We should consider our personal habits and make a concerted effort to become better conservators of our precious resources.