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The Challenge of Wealth - Class 5

Parshas Ki Seitzei

By Dr. Meir Tamari

It is commonplace both in practice and in theory to consider ecology or environmental issues primarily in terms of damage and economics, and in response to these issues there is a vast halakhic literature. However, Judaism also provides an ethical and a spiritual perspective that places the subject in a far wider and more significant context. Furthermore, in accordance with its teachings in all aspects of life, the environment is a matter not only of individual concern but also a communal-national one, that is obligatory not just a matter of mere choice.

This special perspective is clearly shown when we examine the treatment of the subject by Maimonides. Ecological damages, the obligation to make payment for such damage and the imperative to prevent it- both at the individual and communal levels-, are dealt with in that part of the codex that relates to damages caused by one's assets or one's person [ Nizkei Mamon], and those sections dealing with the rights and obligations of neighbors and of citizens, [ Hilkhot Shecheinim]. Everything that relates to damages to the health or the body of another person, and the necessity to prevent such damage, is presented in the laws of murder [ Hilkhot Rotzeach u Shmirat HaNefesh]. Communal and social obligations to prevent damage to the environment and to provide both clean water and air as well as aesthetic pleasure, he codified in the laws of kings [Hilkhot Melachim]. Our parshah provides the main basis for the latter two aspects of ecology and environment.

"When you build a new house you shall make a railing for your roof that you bring not blood-guilt on your house if any falling person falls from it." (Devarim 22: 8). This is codified as a Mitzvat Asei( Hilkhot Rotzeach, Chapter 11, Halakhah1). It must be stressed that this is a purely preventative measure since the owner of the roof is not doing anything to cause the damage. This is an extension of the moral obligation that the Torah places on us with regard to our privately owned property, where we are required to make sure that our assets cannot damage but also with regard to the public domain. "So it is with every obstacle that is liable to cause damage to the human body. It is a positive mitzvah to remove [even seemingly harmless items such as stones or garbage, even from the public domain] and to do so diligently”( Choshen Mishpat,section 427). It is not only a roof [commonly used even today in the Middle East for household chores and daily living] that needs to be protected but also anything else that could cause damage. So one is not allowed to pour water into the public domain, [waste industrial products into rivers], nor to conceal dangerous objects on one's own property [nuclear waste or dangerous chemicals], nor to use public facilities in such a way as to harm to health or safety of other people. A person, man or woman who does not do these things, is transgressing in addition also the negative mitzvah of, “You shall not place blood in your house”.

"You shall not place blood on your house" is extended beyond the physical assets that may cause damage. We are obligated to save the property and lives of people in danger and even their property [damim in Hebrew being both blood and money]. This obligation is related to the mitzvah of returning a lost object to its owner that includes preventing the goods being lost in the first place. The fact that in many cases the beneficiary may have to pay the savior, does not detract from the moral obligation, that stands in contrast to our acceptance of a norm that teaches us to mind our own business and not intervene for the benefit of others even for saving their lives. It may be argued that the prevention of hostile takeovers or of malicious gossip regarding quality of competitors products or their financial situation, as well as providing information to protect the property of another person, would all come under the category of, "you shall not put blood on your house".

There is an aspect of ecology that does flows from the normal behavior of people, where there is neither economic activity nor intention to cause damage to others. This flows from the accumulation of garbage and human waste that society is unable to prevent, yet at the same time must make provision for its disposal. Primitive societies either disappeared because they were unable to do so all or simply moved on to virgin territory. However neither of these is a viable alternative to provision for disposal. Furthermore, this is not a function that can be simply laid of the shoulders of individuals but requires communal and public efforts. So we see that the autonomous Jewish communities made provision for sewage, maintenance of roads and municipal services that were funded out of tax money (for example Pinkas Padua, 16th Century enactment).

Human waste introduces a spiritual element over and above the economic equation. "When you go out of camp against your enemies, guard yourself against anything bad….. and you shall have a place outside the camp where you go out and you shall have an implement with you, …….. you shall dig with it and turn back and cover over again that comes from you. For G-d, your G-d wanders in the midst of your camp, so let your camps be holy”. ( Devarim, 23: 10-15). Maimonides explains that if in the volatile and unsettled army conditions this is a positive obligation, it is even more so in the orderly conditions of normal living. Parallel to this injunction it is not permissible to pray in a place that is dirty, smells of urine or is close to a toilet or bathroom. It is not permissible to greet people with Shalom under similar conditions since it is the Name of HaShem. From” You shall not make detestable” that follows the laws of non- kosher food (Vayikrah, 11:3-4), the rabbis concluded that anything detestable --eating from unclean plates, taking food with dirty hands, or spitting in front of other people -was not permitted (Talmud, Chagigah 5 a). Surely this need for sanctification would apply to rowdy behavior, excessive noise in public places, rioting at sporting events and to any other manifestations of social pollution.

Throughout the discussion of ecology, we cannot lose sight of the problem of the cost involved and who is to pay for that cost. What price tag do we attach to human life and health? There is a stage at which the cost may be prohibitive and therefore there is an important lesson to be gained from the railing on the roof. "What kind of ma'akeh is required", questioned the sages of the Talmud, "a fence on which a normal person may lean without falling over", came the answer. This applies also to runways at airports or bridges.

“It is a religious duty to help unload a person carrying a burden [an extension of the verses in our parshah (22:4) and in Shmot, 23:5, that mention beasts of burden]. Furthermore, even if they only suffer the loss of goods and possessions, it is a mitzvah to take pity on them. The purpose of this precept is to teach our spirit the quality of compassion, which is a noble trait of character. There is no need to say that a duty lies on us to take pity on a person who is suffering physical pain” ( Sefer HaChinukh, mitzvah 80).

Copyright © 2002 by Rabbi Meir Tamari and Project Genesis, Inc.

Dr. Tamari is a renowned economist, Jewish scholar, and founder of the Center For Business Ethics ( in Jerusalem.

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