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The Jewish Legal System

Laws of Damages

Waste of Utilities

Many times, I am perturbed when I need to tell people to be considerate and shut off the lights in the house when they walk out. I am usually ignored and it does not seem to sink in, no matter how many times I request this. What ramifications in Jewish Law are there for people who waste energy and literally throw other people’s money down the drain like this?

In the Torah portion of Shoftim (Deuteronomy 20:19-20), we encounter a prohibition against the destruction of fruit trees, even during wartime, since they are needed for human sustenance. This Biblical commandment—known as “bal tashchis“—is the basis for a very expansive area of laws restricting any form of wanton destruction, which can range from leaving one’s room a mess to even rending one’s garment more than the required amount as a sign of mourning. The determining factor is whether or not the destruction is unnecessary, as there are certain instances wherein a destructive act (such as cutting down a fruit tree) serves a constructive purpose from the perspective of Jewish law (e.g. the tree no longer produces fruit and it is “in the way”). The basic idea is that it is moral to be concerned with peace, the preservation of the good, and the well-being of others; while it is immoral to take part or pleasure in the destruction of the world or in a loss suffered by others.

While this question needs to be addressed to your local, competent, Orthodox rabbi for exact application, it is completely reasonable to say that a purposeless waste of energy is a destructive act, particularly if the only result is that someone else’s money goes down the drain—at which point the offending party is causing his fellow damages for which he is liable. If this is taking place in a family context, however, patience and the ability to turn this into a positive, “teachable moment” are important!

All the best,

Tanchum Burton

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