The principle is rooted in the Biblical law of Deuteronomy 20:19–20. “When you lead a siege against a city many days … you may not destroy any tree of hers, to hew an ax against it, for from it you will eat, and you may not cut it off! Is the tree of the field a person, to come before you in the siege? Only a tree that you know is not a tree for food, that one you may destroy and cut off, and build siegeworks…” In the Bible, the command is said in the context of wartime and forbids the cutting down of fruit trees in order to assist in a siege.
In early rabbinic law however, the bal tashchit principle is understood to include other forms of senseless damage or waste. For instance, the Babylonian Talmud applies the principle to prevent the wasting of lamp oil, the tearing of clothing, the chopping up of furniture for firewood, or the killing of animals.
The logic behind this principle is that if even in a time of war one could not destroy fruit trees, all the more so should one not destroy or waste anything under normal circumstances. The Talmud even goes so far as to state that "…one who tears his clothes or breaks his vessels or scatters his money in anger should be considered like an idol worshipper (see b.Shabbat 105b; cf. also, b.Shabbat 67b)."
However, even though this moral principle could hardly be given a stronger formulation, in all cases, bal tashchit is invoked only for destruction that is deemed unnecessary. Destruction is explicitly condoned when the cause or need is adequate. For example, the law as codified determined that if one could profit more from cutting down a fruit tree and selling its wood than from leaving it standing and harvesting its fruit, this did not count as wasting (b.Baba Qama 91b–92a, Mishneh Torah Shofetim, Hilkhot Melakhim 6:9).
In contemporary Jewish ethics on Judaism and ecology, advocates often point to bal tashchit as an environmental principle. (Jewish vegetarians also point to bal tashchit as one justification for vegetarianism or veganism, arguing that eating meat and raising animals in general is wasteful.) Nevertheless, although bal tashchit may be broadly applied to environmental ethics, its limitation in the case where one may profit through a destructive act makes the application of the laws of bal tashchit to environmental issues complicated.
Eilon Schwartz examines these limitations of bal tashchit in his work. Both David Mevorach Seidenberg and Tanhum Yoreh have proposed ways to buttress the law of bal tashchit so that it may play a more meaningful role in the development of Jewish environmental ethics.
- Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life. Bal Tashchit: the development of a Jewish environmental principle.
- Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings and Wars 6:8,10.
- Nachman, Candace. "Bal Tashchit: Optimism in a Time of Teshuva" on the Canfei Nesharim website, an Orthodox Jewish environmental organization.
- Nir, David. "A Critical Examination of the Jewish Environmental Law of Bal Tashchit 'Do Not Destroy'" Georgetown International Environmental Law Review, Winter, 2006.
- Sefer ha-Chinuch, commandment 529.
- Schwartz, Eilon. "Bal Tashchit: A Jewish Environmental Precept," in Judaism And Environmental Ethics: A Reader Martin D. Yaffe ed., 2001.
- Seidenberg, David. "Bal Tashchit: What’s Wrong With the Jewish Law Against Destruction and Waste — and How to Fix It" (Sept 8, 2016), on Tikkun website.
- Stein, David E. S. "Halakhah: The Law of Bal Tashchit (Do Not Destroy)," in Torah of the Earth.
- Wolff, K.A. "Bal Tashchit: The Jewish Prohibition against Needless Destruction" at http://hdl.handle.net/1887/14448.
- Yoreh, Tanhum. Waste Not: A Jewish Environmental Ethic, SUNY Press, 2019.
- Talmud Shabbath 67b, Tractate Hullin 7b, Kiddushin 32a
- "Bal tashchit ('do not destroy')". Reformjudaism.org.uk. 2016-02-24. Retrieved 2016-08-19.
... an omnivorous diet (one that includes meat) is wasteful and should be prohibited, since an omnivorous diet uses five times as much grain, over ten times as much water, over 15 times as much land and over 20 times as much energy as compared with a vegan diet.
- Schwartz, Richard. "IS AN ANIMAL-BASED DIET A CHILLUL HASHEM?". www.jewishveg.org. Retrieved 2019-11-25.
- Seidenberg, David Mevorach (2016-09-08). "Bal Tashchit: What's Wrong With the Jewish Law Against Destruction and Waste — and How to Fix It". www.tikkun.org. Retrieved 2020-09-25.