Simon Jackson
Legal Advisor to Torah Mitzion


The ideal of conservation may be found in the Torah’s institution of the Sabbatical year (Vayikra 25:1–5): “When you come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a sabbath unto Hashem. Six years shall you sow your field, and six years shall you prune your vineyard, and gather in the produce thereof. But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a sabbath unto the Hashem; you shall neither sow your field nor prune your vineyard…”

The Sabbatical Year

One reason for the institution of the Sabbatical year is cited by Rambam, in his Guide to the Perplexed (3:39):

“With regard to all the commandments that we have enumerated in Hilchot Shemita ve’Yovel (Laws concerning the Sabbatical Year and the Jubilee), some are meant to lead to pity and help for all men – as the Torah states: “That the poor of the people may eat; and what they leave, the beasts of the field shall eat …” (Shemot 23:11) – and are meant to make the earth more fertile and stronger through letting it fallow.”

In other words, one of the goals of ceasing all agricultural activity is to improve and strengthen the land.

To this and other suggested reasons for the Sabbatical Year, Rav Kook (Shabbat Ha’Aretz pp. 8-9) innovates the restoration of the proper balance among man, God, and nature. In the Year of Shemita, according to Rav Kook:

“Man returns to the freshness of his nature, to the point where there is no need to heal his illnesses, most of which result from destruction of the balance of life as it departs ever further from the purity of spiritual and material nature.”


Altering Creation

In addition to refraining from overexploitation of the earth’s resources, we must also be mindful of preserving the natural balance of creation. This is the approach taken by R. Avraham Ibn Ezra in his explanation of the Torah’s prohibition against mixing species. In Sefer Vayikra (19:19) we are commanded:

“You shall keep my statutes. You shall not let your cattle gender with a diverse kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; neither shall there come upon you a garment of two kinds of stuff mingled together.”

One aspect of preventing changes in the creation finds expression in the effort to avoid causing the extinction of any animal. The presumption that everything that was created was created for some purpose denies us the possibility of eliminating from the world any species. So writes Ramban (Vayikra 19:19) concerning the prohibition of mixing species:

“The reason for the prohibition against mixing species is that God created all the species of the earth … and gave them the power to reproduce so that their species could exist forever, for as long as He wishes the world to exist, and He created for each one the capacity to reproduce only its own species and not change it, forever, as it is said of all of them (Bereshit 1:11), lemineihu (‘after their kind’)… and anyone who grafts together two different species changes and contradicts the order of creation, for it is as if he thinks that Hashem has not totally completed His world…”


Prohibition Against Wasteful Destruction

An additional expression of man’s obligation to preserve his natural environment may be found in the commandment against wasteful destruction, bal tashchit. In general, the commandment prohibits the destruction of anything from which humans may benefit. It applies to the destruction of animals, plants, and even man-made and inanimate objects.

Instructive remarks are found in Sefer haHinnukh’s discussion of the prohibition against cutting down fruit-bearing trees:

“It is known that this commandment is meant to teach us to love the good and the useful and cling to them, and in this way goodness will cling to us, and we will avoid all that is bad and decadent. And this is the way of the pious: They love peace and rejoice in the good fortune of others, and bring everyone near to the Torah, and do not waste even a mustard seed, and they are pained by all destruction and waste that they see. And they save anything they can from destruction with all their might. But the wicked are different. They are the allies of those who destroy, they rejoice in destruction of the world and they destroy themselves: ‘with the kind of measure a man measures, so shall he be measured …’ (Mishnah Sotah 1:7)”

In the book of Devarim (20:19), among the laws concerning the waging of war, we find that, even in time of war, it is forbidden to destroy fruit-bearing trees.

“When you shall besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, you shall not destroy the trees thereof by wielding an axe against them; for you may eat of them, but you shall not cut them down; for is the tree of the field man, that it should be besieged by you?”


Comparison of Human Beings to Trees

The Rabbis (Pirkei de’Rabbi Eliezer 34) even compared the death of the tree to the departure of man’s soul from his body:

“There are six sounds that go from one end of the world to the other, though they are inaudible. When people cut down the wood of a tree that yields fruit, its cry goes from one end of the world to the other, and the sound is inaudible … When the soul departs from the body, the cry goes forth from one end of the world to the other, and the sound is inaudible.”

It is true that we do not hear the cries emitted by the tree at the time it is cut down, or of the soul as it leaves the body; however, this does not mean that these do not exist, rather that they are of too high a frequency, which is beyond man’s normal range of hearing!
Next Column: Balancing Interests – Nature’s Conservation v. Man’s Benefit