What is the perspective of Jewish law on littering in public areas?
There are two answers, one brief, and one long. The brief one is that it’s prohibited. The long answer follows:
Nowadays, most cities have ordinances which regulate public littering. Jewish law dictates that such ordinances are binding, and all must abide by them. This is spelled out by the Aruch Hashulchan (CM 414:5) who writes that with reference to all issues regarding littering, if there is a law in the land [regarding this], then “Dina De’malchusa Dina”, the law of the land is [like Torah] law.
However, aside from the issue of “Dina De’malchusa Dina”, and the issue of possibly having to pay a fine, there is a different question involved, which is whether intrinsically a person is allowed to damage property which is used by the public.
The Aruch Hashulchan (ibid:1) writes, that in the event that the streets are paved, or if there are unpaved streets which are constantly being leveled, it is definitely prohibited to dig, or to erect anything whatsoever [which will ruin the level of the street].
The source for this question is a Talmudic discussion (Bava Kamma 6a) regarding throwing waste into the public domain, and the difference if this action is done during the winter or during the summer.
Rashi (ad loc.) explains, that the difference between winter and summer is, that in the summer the street is pleasantly kept, so someone who throws his refuse into the street is ruining the street. In contrast, in the rainy season the streets are anyway dirty, so one who throws waste there does not make them significantly worse.
There are those who derive from Rashi’s words, that if something is well kept, one is not allowed to spoil it. Therefore, if the streets are kept clean all year long, it follows that one is forbidden all year to make them dirty by littering.
In this writer’s opinion, Rashi’s words do not support the idea of a proscription against littering. Those who invoke the above Rashi have apparently have been influenced by Rashi’s words (s.v. b’yemos hachama) “mipnei sh’harechov na’eh hu”. They seem translate this, that the street looks “nice”, hence the proscription against littering, since this makes the street “un-nice”.
However I question this “proof”, since Rashi (and the be’raisa which he’s coming to explain) seem to be referring not to the esthetics of throwing waste and soiling the street, but rather to pouring sewage there, which will damage the street.
The reality in those times was that the roads were unpaved. This resulted in a situation, that in the rainy season, the roads were usually muddy. However during the summer, due to the absence of rainfall, the roads were able to dry, and were much easier to be used. Therefore, if one poured waste water into the street during the rainy season, he would not be seriously affecting the quality of the road, since it was anyway soft and muddy.
However the same action committed in the summer, had an adverse qualitative effect on the road, causing it to be less utilitarian, which would be considered “gezel harabim”, theft from the public.
In short, littering the street is an issue of esthetics, while pouring wastewater into the street causes physical damage to the street.
However, in support of the idea of not littering in public areas, I propose referring to the Talmud (Chagiga 5a) which interprets the verse (Koheles 12:14) that Hashem will bring a person to judgment on “ALL hidden things”. Rav says that this refers to someone who kills a louse in front of his friend; who is repulsed by this action. Shmuel says that this refers to someone spitting in front of his friend; who is repulsed by this action. Rashi explains, though the person doing the action was unaware of the significance of his action, and though the action seems trivial, nevertheless Hashem will judge him for his action, because his friend was repulsed by it.
The above segment is quoted by the Mishneh Berura (151:24) in reference to spitting in the presence of another person. The Meiri (ad loc.) comments, that the examples given in the Talmud aren’t exclusive. They merely serve as examples of types of actions. These actions are not prohibited per se, however if others find repulsion in their commission, then these actions they must be refrained from while in the presence of another person.
I suggest that a Talmudic basis for not littering the streets can be inferred from here. Most people find littering to be repulsive, and therefore this too must be refrained from, since we see the stringency of doing things that people are repulsed by.
I add that while the above assertion would be applicable both in Eretz Yisrael and in chutz la’aretz, however when dealing with the topic of littering in Eretz Yisrael there may be an additional issue involved, which is the idea of beautifying Eretz Yisrael.
At this point I can’t recall any explicit mention of this in Chazal, but I did find mention in Shut Mishneh Halachos (XIV:129) that there were “chachamim” (rabbis, sages) that would pick up litter from the street in Eretz Yisrael that they came across “as is explained in Chazal in order to beautify Eretz Yisrael”.
There are also other Torah commandments involved with public littering.
It is the opinion of this writer that refraining from littering falls under the rubric of the positive commandment of “liking ones fellowman as oneself” (Vayikra 19:18).
Rabbi Moshe of Coucy (born circa 1200 CE) in his work “Semag” (Essin, 9) explains that this commandment is encapsulated by the Talmudic dictum (Shabbos 31a) by Hillel, “that which is repugnant to you, do not do unto others”.
Rambam in his Sefer Hamitzvos (Asseih 206) says that this includes, that anything that I would want for myself, I should want for my fellow man. Likewise, that which I despise for myself, I should likewise feel with regard for my fellow man. [See also Yad (Dei’os, 6:3)].
Likewise, the Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 243) explains, that the general rule is, that a person must act with his fellow man like he would act with himself. [See also sefer “Chafetz Chaim” (Introduction, Essin, 2)].
The fact is that most sensible people appreciate a clean environment. This is especially evident in the privacy of their homes, where people are fastidious about cleanliness, and are repulsed when litter abounds. They pay maids, housecleaners, and other service providers to make sure that their homes are well maintained.
People also like when the streets are well tended, and are annoyed when the municipality or the powers to be leave the area in neglect. The sight of litter in the streets conveys an impression of the character of those who live there, and can even adversely affect property values in the area. In the case of parks and nature reserves, people come out there to enjoy the scenery and environment, and are disturbed when the natural beauty is marred by litter.
Therefore, the Torah commandment of “liking ones fellowman as oneself” charges us with internalizing our own sentiments of desire of a clean environment; in order to make sure that we leave the public environment in the same way we would want others to leave it for us.
A person who litters in public indicates that is not bothered by the fact that others may repulsed by his actions. This is in contrast to the sensitivity that he himself would certainly like to receive from others, regarding those matters which are important to him. This display of indifference to other people’s sensitivities, is a neglect of the fulfillment of the commandment of “liking ones fellowman as oneself”.
When a person litters in public, his act can also be described as a “chilul Hashem”, a disgrace of Hashem’s name.
This idea is supported by the Talmud (Yoma 86a) which interprets the verse (Devarim 6:5) “Ve’ahavta Es Hashem Elokecha” to mean, that a person should strive to make the name of Hashem be beloved by others. This is achieved by conducting one’s self with exemplary public behavior. People then point to him as an example of how Torah study brings a person to perfection, and exclaim, “Praised is his father who taught him Torah, and praised is his teacher who taught him Torah”. However if a person’s public behavior is unbefitting, people then exclaim, “Woe to that person who studied Torah, woe to his father who taught him Torah, woe to his teacher who taught him Torah”. Abaye says, that this is an example of “chilul Hashem.
People expect those who study the Torah to conduct themselves in an exemplary manner. The failure to conduct one’s self accordingly, says the Talmud, is a disgrace of Hashem’s name, since evidently His Torah is incapable of properly inculcating those who study it.
Therefore, when a Jewish person is seen littering in public, this is considered a “chilul Hashem”, a disgrace of Hashem’s name.
It should be noted that even if the person litters when no one else is around, but the litter contains writing which clearly identifies said litter as coming from a Jewish person, this also creates a “chilul Hashem”. [The same would apply to leaving graffiti in public areas with the likes of “Yankel was here”, since this clearly identifies the graffiti writer as a member of the Jewish people].
If a Jewish person finds litter that clearly identifies it as coming from a Jewish person, and he picks it up, so that others will not be exposed to the indiscretions of his co-religionists, he thereby performs a mitzvah, since he is thereby preventing a “chilul Hashem” and a disgrace to His people.
In addition, he even might actually be obligated by Jewish law to remove such litter, despite the fact that he was not the person who actually left the litter there. The reason for such an obligation is in order to prevent suspicion from falling on him. This is because the next person to arrive on the scene might very well [erroneously] jump to the conclusion that the Jewish person who is currently present is the one who actually littered.
The obligation to prevent suspicion, and to remain above reproach, is derived from the verse (Bamidbar 32:22) “and you shall be guiltless before G-d and before Israel”. The Mishna (Shekalim 3:2) derives from here, that just as one must remain guiltless in the eyes of G-d, he must also remain guiltless in the eyes of man. The Mishna adds an additional verse (Mishlei 3:4), “Find grace and good understanding, in the eyes of G-d and man”.
If a Jewish person is seen picking up litter that he clearly was not responsible for, this is considered an act of “kiddush Hashem”, since this is an example of exemplary public behavior. People then point to him as an example of how Torah study brings a person to perfection, and exclaim, “Praised is his father who taught him Torah, and praised is his teacher who taught him Torah” (Yoma ibid.).
May Hashem help us to always be able to fulfill His will, in order for us to glorify and sanctify His name.
Kollel Toras Zeraim HALACHA
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