In a stunt that shocked the art world, Banksy shredded his piece, Girl with Balloon, minutes after it was sold for more than £1million. A hapless copycat, expecting to double the value of his £40,000 print by doing the same to his artwork, caused the value to plummet to just £1. So, what does the Torah say about destroying property?
Normally, wantonly destroying useful items of value is forbidden by Torah law under the injunction of bal tashchit – illegal destruction. This biblical prohibition stems from the ban on felling trees in circumstances where it is not strictly necessary as determined by Torah law.
Fits of anger are halachically criticised as akin to idol worship, but if someone is in a state of indignation or severe distress, such as on hearing bad news, tearing a garment is a requirement, as this will let out the overwhelming emotion and reduce the risk of permanent damage to one’s health, such as a heart attack or stroke.
For this reason, mourners tear their garments on hearing of the passing of a loved one or next to the coffin.
Although the garment is torn, it is not destroyed, and there are intricate laws applied for the sewing up of the garment for re-use.
At weddings, a cup is crushed underfoot by the bridegroom in apparent contradiction to the usual rule.
Here, the valid excuse is that in so doing, there is a public memorial to the destroyed Temple – a far greater tragedy as it has yet to be rebuilt – and so the famous chuppah scenario.
Therefore, if the destruction was safely presumed to double its worth, there was a halachically valid excuse to destroy it, as its apparent destruction could be viewed as the opposite – its tikkun, or further improvement.
Whether or not Banksy’s act was halachic will depend upon whether he consulted sufficiently with experts before taking such a gamble.
- Rabbi Abel serves Liverpool Old Hebrew Congregation and is padre to HM Armed Forces