From Bereshit (Genesis 1:28), the first chapter in the Torah, we see that God wants human beings to both use the natural world for their needs but at the same time to preserve the world and prevent its destruction. We need to work out how to achieve both. Destroying anything in the world needlessly is called ‘Bal tashchit’ in Hebrew and Jews are commanded “not to cause any damage or loss”.
Any use of the natural world or its resources that satisfies a legitimate human need is not considered destructive. A monetary benefit is considered a human need. This was agreed to and codified as law by Maimonides. Also, when the environment would be harmed without destruction taking place, it becomes legitimate. If when performing a mitzvah destruction occurs, it is considered legitimate. Two examples of this are the tearing of one’s shirt as a sign of mourning, and the burning of chametz before Passover.
Judaism has a heightened sensitivity to the environment, reflected by the Torah, and the Rabbis and their later rulings. Judaism created specific laws that are more sophisticated than most of the environmental laws that exist today.
The laws of shmittah, where the land must lie fallow every seven years, are to preserve the earth and make it more fertile. It is dictated that there must remain distance between city and rural areas to create a healthy ecological balance. Garbage must not pollute public property. Maimonides states that damage causing air pollution through smoke, dust, and noxious smells is not permitted even if no one protests. Water must not cause damage or pollution. Noise cannot create a hazard to the human environment.
The Midrash states that once the world is destroyed, the damage is irreparable. It is our ethical responsibility to prevent this happening.
Sh’mittah – the Sabbatical Year