Ethical Consumption

Climate change is a consequence of billions of daily choices that people make about consumption of energy and other resources.

Behavioural change, on a mass scale is widely agreed to be a necessary part of combating climate change. However, “behavioural change” is easier said to others than accomplished oneself, as anyone who has ever attempted to loose weight, stop smoking or be nicer to their mother-in-law can testify.

Jewish ethics of consumption are a powerful resource for informing and inspiring such change. Let’s look first at ba’al taschit,the prohibition on wanton or wasteful destruction. Although this concept been widely discussed in the Jewish environmental literature1, it deserves deeper exploration in the context of climate change. Later we’ll move on to the thornier question of whether we’re simply consuming too much stuff and how Jewish teachings can help us to deal with that issue too.

Ba’al Tashchit.

Ba’al Taschit is the Torah’s prohibition on wasteful or pointless destruction of property or resources. It is rooted in the biblical verses that forbid cutting down fruit trees in a time of war, (Deuteronomy 18-20.) The Talmud2 and later halakhic sources extrapolate this to other situations of wanton destruction. Maimonides includes within its scope smashing dishes, tearing clothes, demolishing buildings and stopping up wells.3

Plenty of ink has been spilled on whether ba’al taschit can serve as the basis for a Jewish environmental ethic.4 In the context of climate change however, let’s focus on two Talmudic passages that seem ripe for revisiting.

Keeping the Lights On.

In Talmud Shabbat, 67b we read,

“Rav Zutra says, One who covers an oil lamp, or uncovers a naphtha lamp has violated ba’al taschit.”

Rashi explains Rav Zutras’s statement: doing either of these things causes the oil or naptha to burn faster and therefore uses up more fuel than is necessary to achieve your purpose (keeping the lights on.) It wastes energy, and according to Rav Zutra, that’s ba’al taschit.

Can any one think of any contemporary parallels? Driving an SUV when you could just as well use a hybrid, leaving the lights on, driving when you could just as easily walk….in fact there are hundreds of decisions inĀ everyday life, where we face the Rav Zutra’s choice of using more or less energy to attain the same goal.

Given what we now know about the harm that burning excessive fossil fuels does to the world, maybe we should all begin incorporating Rav Zutra’s sensibility to wasting energy into our everyday consciousness?5

Food and Fuel.

Later in tractate Shabbat (140b) we read.

“Rav Hisda says, “one who could eat barley bread, but eats wheat bread has violated “ba’al taschit.” Rav Pappa says, one who could drink wine, but drinks beer, has violated ba’al taschit.”

What ba’al taschit is involved in these cases? At first glance you might think it’s the waste of money involved in indulging one’s appetite for luxuries when simpler foods would suffice. The Talmudic rabbis would then be expressing a preference for asceticism.6

But there is another way of understanding the Talmud. Once, I taught this passage to an audience that included someone who actually knew something about growing wheat and barley. He pointed out that wheat requires a great deal more land, water and labour in order to grow the same amount of food. These extra inputs are certainly reflected in wheat’s higher price, but the ba’al taschit that worries Rav Hisda may be the waste of unnecessary natural resources and not the waste of cash.

This alternative reading is particularly relevant today. Government subsidies for corn, and relatively cheap oil allow us to buy food that’s cheap at the supermarket checkout, but very expensive in its use of resources.

If we go with this interpretation of Rav Hisda, then the contemporary parallels are potentially endless. Eating corn-fed beef (i.e. most beef today) that requires ten pounds of grain to produce one of beef, eating fruit that’s come from half way across the world; buying Newfoundland rocket lettuce that consumes 128 calories of fossil fuel energy to yield 1 calorie of food energy etc.; It is estimated that food production and transportion in the US consumes more oil than all of the country’s automobiles. Rav Hisda might view all of these choices, that consume far more energy than is needed to feed us, as ba’al taschit.

However, the Talmud then rejects Rav Hisda and Rav Pappa’s views:

“But this isn’t the case. ba’al taschit of one’s body takes preference.” (Ibid.)

The argument here is that the potentially destructive effects on a person’s health of always choosing the simpler food could be a type ofba’al taschit for his bodily well-being,7 and that this outweighs the greater use of money or resources involved in consuming the richer food.

This point doesn’t apply to our contemporary situation. On the contrary, heavily processed, industrially produced foods that use up masses of fossil fuels, and corn-fed beef are far more likely to do damage to your health and body than simpler, less-resource intensive foods.8

It’s surely time for us to recover Rav Hisda and Rav Pappa’s insight that consuming products whose manufacture consumes excessive natural resources, particularly fossil fuels, is a kind of Ba’al taschit, an unnecessary destruction of God-given natural gifts.9


1The most thorough and insightful discussion of the sources on ba’al taschit is Eilon Schwartz’s essay “Is the Tree Human?” in Trees, Earth and Torah, Elon, Hyman and Waskow, eds. (Philadephia, 2000), 83-105. See also Norman Lamm’s useful article in the same volume.
2Bava Kamma, 91b-92a.
3Laws of Kings, 6:10.
4Schwartz (see note 1) distinguishes between two strands in the traditional sources; an anthropocentric, utilitarian tendency that is prepared to limit ba’al taschit when it conflicts with human welfare (e.g. in Ibn Ezra’s comment on the biblical passage), and a biocentric strand that is more willing to confer intrinsic value on trees, and hence more stringent about countenancing their destruction, (exemplified by Rashi’s comments on the verses in Deuteronomy 20. ) The latter approach is more consonant with contemporary environmentalism.
5His statement is not cited as normative halakhah. Given our radically different situation today, one hopes it will start to be quoted by halakhic decision-makers concerned with the environment.
6Schwartz, ibid, 94 reads these talmudic statements as expressing an ascetic tendency.
7It is interesting to note the conceptual connections that are drawn between ba’al taschit of property and physical damage to one’s person in the main Talmudic discussion of ba’al taschit. See Bava Kamma, 90b-92a.
8This point is compelling demonstrated in Michael Pollan’s recent books,The Omnivore’s Dilemma (New York 2006) and In Defence of Food, New York 2008.
9See www.hazon.org for a Jewish environmental organization that’s grappling with these issues.