“Is All Fair in Love & War?” Just & Unjust Wars through the prism of Jewish and Secular Thought Part 6

Destruction in warfare are there any limits?

Maimonides states.

It is forbidden to cut down fruit-bearing trees outside a (besieged) city, nor may a water channel be deflected from them so that they wither, as it is said: Thou shalt not destroy the trees thereof (Deut. chap. 20:19). Whoever cuts down a fruit-bearing tree is flogged. This penalty is imposed not only for cutting it down during a siege; whenever a fruit-yielding tree is cut down with destructive intent, flogging is incurred. It may be cut down, however, if it causes damage to other trees or to a field belonging to another man or if its value for other purposes is greater (than that of the fruit it produces). The Law forbids only wanton destruction….

Not only one who cuts down (fruit-producing) trees, but also one who smashes household goods, tears clothes, demolishes a building, stops up a spring, or destroys articles of food with destructive intent, transgresses the command Thou shalt not destroy. (Maimonides, The Book of Judges, chap. 6:8,10)


Many medieval commentators of Jewish legal thought remark on the moral purpose of these laws.

Nachmanides, (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman 1194-1270), makes the following comment:

 and thou shalt not cut them down; for is the tree of the field a man, Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra has explained it well, that the purport of the verse is follows: “for thou mayest eat of it, for the man is the tree of the field [i.e., man is dependent on the fruit tree for food], and thou shalt not cut it down that it be used by you in the siege.  … But in the opinion of our Rabbis, it is permissible to cut down a fruit tree to build a bulwark and the statement of the Torah [Bible], Only trees which thou knowest that they are not trees for food etc. is to assign priority, meaning that a fruitless tree should be cut down prior to a fruit tree. If so, the meaning of the section, in their opinion, is that the Torah warned, Thou shalt not destroy the trees to cut them down destructively, not for the purpose of siege, as is the custom of armies [to cut down trees needlessly]. ..You are not to do so, to destroy it… [however] you are permitted to cut them down to build bulwarks and also to destroy them until it be subdued, for sometimes the destruction [of the trees] is for the purpose of capturing the city [not wanton destruction]; for example, when the people of the city go out and fetch the wood thereof, or they hide there in the forest to fight against them…(Nachmanides, Commentary of the Torah, Deut.20:19)


Similar ideas are developed in the Sefer haChinuch (Book of Education). Published anonymously, but attributed to Pinhas haLevi of Barcelona in the thirteenth century, it is a work that corresponds to the chapters of the Bible discussing the legal and moral perspective of each of the six hundred thirteen Biblical commandments.

 Commandment 529 – that we are prohibited from cutting down the trees  when we set siege to a city, in order to distress the people of the city and make their hearts grieve …It is likewise included under this negative precept not to cause any damage or loss: for instance, to set fire, tear clothing or break a vessel for no purpose…The root reason for the precept is known: for it is in order to train our spirits to love what is good and beneficial and to cling to it; and as a result, good fortune will cling to us, and we will move well away from every evil thing and from every matter of destructiveness. This is the way of the kindly men of piety and the conscientiously observant; …They will not destroy even a mustard seed in the world, and they are distressed at every ruination and spoilage that they see; and if they are able to do any rescuing, they will save anything from destruction, with all their power.

Not so, however, are the wicked…They rejoice at the destruction of the world, and they become destroyed. By the measure with which a man measures, by that he is measured; ….Among the laws of the precept the Torah did not forbid chopping down fruit trees except when they are cut down destructively; but  it is certainly permitted to cut them down  if any useful benefit will be found in the matter: for instance, if the monetary value of a certain tree is high, and this person wanted to sell it … or chopping them down – for instance, if this was harming other trees that were better than it or because it was causing damage in the fields of others. In all these circumstances …it is permissible.


This is coupled with the fact that in the Talmud (a record of rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, customs, and history. The Talmud containsthe Mishnah (c. 200 CE), the first written compendium of Judaism’s Oral Law; and the Gemara a rabbinic commentary expansion on the issues discussed in the Mishnah (c. 500 CE)), there is a conversation focused on the responsibility to control fatalities in war, even after the war has been approved.

 A government that kills one-sixth of the population is not punished [more than that it is] (Tractate Shavuot 35b)


Ravitsky notes that the ambiguity of the Talmudic prohibition leaves to an open discussion on whether this prohibition of quantity of fatalities is directed to the Jewish soldiers, namely that no more than one sixth of the Jewish army may be killed in any military activity or is the prohibition a warning to the Jewish army that no more than one sixth of the enemy may be destroyed in the course of battle. It would seem that most commentators are of the opinion that this prohibition applies to fatalities of the enemy.

 God protect us from that opinion [referring to the opinion that this prohibition is limited to the loss of  Jewish soldiers] . . .all those who chatter about the ‘[acceptable] level of losses’ are only spoilers in the vineyards [a metaphor playing off the Biblical reference to the Song of Songs mentioned in the Talmudic statement]. God save us from them and their followers. (“‘Prohibited Wars’ In Jewish Religious Law,p. 10)

These laws highlight the concern for human life,  the ideal that force should be proportional, as well as evaluating the long term destructive limits war should have on humankind and the environment.

Posted in Ethics, War

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