Beit Midrash

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The prohibition of not destroying

Who is the landlord?


Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Rimon

It is explained in the Parsha that we should not destroy fruit trees "When you besiege a city…do not destroy its trees…for from it you will eat, and you shall not cut it down" (Deutoronomy 20:19).

Is there also a Torah prohibition against destroying other things?

Miamonides in the Laws of Kings (6:8) brings the law of destroying trees. In Halacha 10 he says:

And not only the trees, but whoever breaks dishes, or tears clothing, or destroys a building, or blocks up a spring, or wastes food by destroying it, transgresses the prohibition not to destroy, but he only receives lashes as set by the Rabbis.

From the words of Miamonides it apparently seems that destroying everything else is rabbinic, and he receives lashes. The response of the Noda BeYehuda (Tanina Yore Deah 10a) understood it this way. However, the accepted understanding of Maimonides‘ opinion is that the prohibition against destroying is biblical, but one is not punished with lashes for it. The Minchas Chinuch (529), Aruch HaShulchan and others understood it thusly. And this is the opinion of the Tosefot (91b, words starting but) and the Chinuch (529) and the Yeraim (382). [And of Miamonides himself in the Sefer Hamitzvot (Commandment 57). There, he even wrote that there are lashes].

Why is it prohibited to waste?

One philosopher said that asking "Why do we need to be ethical" is an unethical question (from my master and teacher Rav Lichtenstein Zt’l). Here too, we do not need to explain why it is prohibited to destroy: man was created in order to build and enhance, and not to destroy.

Destruction is harmful on two planes: first, it harms creation, the world. However, it also harms man’s soul. A person who becomes accustomed to destroying – his soul becomes a destructive soul and not a constructive soul.

Another reason can be seen from the Sefer HaChinuch (529):

The root of the commandment is known, and it is in order to teach our souls to love the good and value and to stick to it, and from this the good will stick to us and we will be distanced from everything bad and everything destructive. This is the way of the pious and men of deeds who love peace and are happy with good people and bring them closer to the Torah. They do not waste even a grain of mustard, and they are sorry for every loss and destruction that they see, and if they can save it they use all their strength to save anything from being destroyed…

A person who becomes accustomed to destroying does not appreciate what he was given. Instead of being happy with everything, he degrades things, destroys them, and does not appreciate what he received. Instead of being grateful, and feeling the merit that he has in everything he receives, he becomes ungrateful, a person who does not appreciate everything he has.

We can add more: only a landlord is permitted to destroy his property without being punished for it (a borrower, renter, etc. can use but not destroy. The legal right to destroy is given to owners only). The Torah is teaching us that indeed there is no legal claim against someone who destroys his own things, but there is a prohibition, because man needs to know that indeed everything belongs to G-d. Harm to property, is an incorrect feeling, as if man is the owner, and everything belongs to him (from my teacher and father-in-law Rav Blumentzweig). This can be seen in the Midrash, where G-d brought Adam and showed him all of creation, and said to him "Be meticulous not to destroy". Even the landlord is a borrower. He is a borrower, for twenty years, for fifty years, for ninety years, but he is a borrower. The eternal world belongs to G-d only.

Educational Guidance for the Prohibition not to Destroy

Our Sages taught us, that these things start with small things. Our Sages warned us regarding all sorts of small things which can bring to destruction. In Brachot 40b (and in the Shulchan Aruch 171:1) our Sages warned against passing a full cup of water over bread so that it should not spill and ruin the bread.

Leftover bread: the Gemarrah in Pesachim 111b; Chulin 105b – tells about a person whom the angel responsible for poverty tried to make poor. The angel tried to find him destroy something, but did not succeed. The man did not throw out even bread crumbs. In the end the angel said: I came down here for nothing (and I did not succeed in making you a poor man). From here the Shulchan Aruch 180:4 ruled that disrespect of bread – causes poverty. And it seems the reason is that a person who disposes shows that he is not grateful for what G-d gave him, so therefore G-d does not give him afterwards.

Disposing leftovers that the person will no longer eat – is permissible. Disposing bread – in a bag (it is permissible to gather everything in one bag and to dispose it once a week. [According to the halacha it is only prohibited to throw out bread which is larger than a K’zayit, but it is explained in the Shulchan Aruch 180:4 that we need to be meticulous about bread which is less than a K’zayit because it can bring poverty].

Let us try to preserve what G-d gave us, to appreciate everything we have – small things and large things, to try to eat everything on our plate, and also to educate our children in this, to take care not to destroy and not to eliminate, and G-d willing through also appreciating the small things G-d will bless us with much more.

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