Environmental Issues in Judaism

by: Allain Attar


By: Alain Attar

Today ‘s ecological awareness and debates on wider global issues are in many cases a result of the detrimental side of industrialization and its effect on the environment.

  • What are Judaism ‘s views on environmental issues?
  • How does the Torah establishan ecological balance between people ‘s needs and protecting the environment?

The first obligation given to people to protect the environment is defined in the verse in Bereshit 2:15:

“And the Lord God took the man, and put him into theGarden of Eden to cultivate it and to guard it.”

Adam ‘s responsibility towards the earth is illustrated in the following Midrash:

The Rabbis say that God took Adam to see all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him: Look how pleasant my world is and look how good my creations are. Everything I created, I created for you. Set your mind not to spoil them and not to destroy my world.

Chief Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks sums up the Midrash in the following way:

“Man is not only the master but also the guardian of Nature. This is perhaps the best short definition of the ecological imperative as Judaism understands it. A guardian is entrusted with property that does not belong to him. His task is to take charge of it and eventually return it to its owner intact.”

At the very same time God gives people the power to use and dominate His creations:

“And God blessed them and said. Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it.”Devarim 20:19.

People are commanded to fill the earth, subdue it and dominate animal life. The word “subdue”(kivshua) in Hebrew can express opposite ideas. It can mean to conquer and to suppress, but it can also mean to preserve and to protect.
Let us examine the extent to which we are commanded to subdue the earth.
“When you shall besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, you shall not destroy its trees by forcing an axe against them; for you may eat of them, and you shall not cut them down. For is the tree of the field a man that you should besiege it?” Devarim. 20:19-20
According to Rabbi S. R. Hirsch, the famous 19th century thinker, the Torah ‘s prohibition to destroy fruit trees extends to the protection of the whole ecosystem.
This prohibition of purposeless destruction of fruit trees around a besieged city is only to be taken as an example to general wastefulness. Under the concept of Bal Taschit, the purposeless destruction of anything at all is forbidden, so that our text becomes the most comprehensive warning to human beings not to misuse the position which God has given them as masters of the world and its matter by capricious, passionate or merely thoughtless wasteful destruction of anything on earth. Only for wise use has God laid the world at our feet when He said to Man “subdue the world and have dominion over it”.
This is the wider meaning of Bal Taschit.

“The Torah speaks of the protection of the environment in wartime because it is the most destructive of all human activities”. – Eric Freudenstein, Ecology and the Jewish Tradition.

During World War 2, the British government passed wide-ranging laws to guarantee that, even when the heavily bombed cities were to be rebuilt, they were to be surrounded by natural farmland and park. These were known as “Green Belts” and remain in place today.
In Vayikra 25:32 and 34, regarding the cities that were given to the Levites it is written:

“However, concerning the cities of the Levites, and the houses of the cities of their possession, the Levites shall have a perpetual right of redemption.”

“But the fields of the open lands of their cities may not be sold; for it is an eternal heritage for them.”

Eric Freudenstein in his article Ecology and the Jewish Tradition, says that these cities weresurrounded by 1000 cubits (about 500 meters) of fields and vineyards and the Torah forbids the selling of the outer fields.
The Talmud in Arachin 33b, interprets the verse, not only to prohibit the transfer of a field from its original owner but it also forbids any transformation from its original status.
Just as a field cannot be sold, it may neither be altered.

Mishnah Baba Batra, chap.2: “A fixed threshing floor must be kept fifty cubits from a town.”

The Gemara 24b explains as follows:

“Why is it kept fifty cubits away from a town? To prevent it doing damage.”

Freudenstein adds that these Talmudic regulations prohibited the establishment of a permanent threshing floor within proximity to the city for fear that the wind would carry the chaff and the dust particles would jeopardize the health of the city dwellers.

“You shall have a place also outside the camp, where you shall go out to it; And you shall have a spade among your weapons; and it shall be, when you will ease yourself outside, you shall dig with it, and shall turn back and cover that which comes of you.” Deuteronomy, 23:13-14

Verse 13 spells out the responsibility of the community to build a sewage disposal for the needs of its people in order to safeguard a healthy environment. Rambam, the medieval Spanish doctor and philosopher, declares that You shall have a place also outside the camp, is a positive commandment, a Mitzvat Aseh. This is a matter for city authorities to ensure they include provisions for sewage systems in planning a town ‘s infrastructure.
Verse 14, however, highlights the individual ‘s responsibility to extend care to the environment even when outside their boundary. The commandment “And you shall have a spade among your weapons….when you will ease yourself outside” symbolizes our duty to be sensitive and care for the environment beyond our own boundaries.

“When you build a new house, then you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you should not bring any blood upon your house, if any man falls from there. ” Devarim 22:8

This verse illustrates the Torah ‘s concern for public and private safety.
The Talmud extends this warning to other dangerous situations. The Gemara in Bava Kama states that “Morality is measured by how one disposes of broken glass and other dangerous objects. The highest degree of morality would lead one to bury them so deep that they would not harm anyone.”
Similarly, the Mishnah, referring to the uncovered pit, mentioned in Exodus 21:33,34. stipulates that this refers to anything, which is left in the public domain and which might cause harm to others.
Rambam writes in his Mishneh Torah: Hilchot Melachim 6:10

Whoever (deliberately) breaks a vessel, or tears a garment, or destroys a building, or shuts up a water supply or disposes of food in a destructive manner violates the commandof Bal Tashchit.

This does not apply however, if something is destroyed for a constructive purpose. For example, where a fruit tree is diseased, or causes damage to other trees, or the value of its wood for fuel exceeds the value of its fruit, it may be cut down. This is the opinion of Rabina (Bava Kama 91b-92a). However, Rav, states that in the case of trees with which Eretz Yisrael is blessed, the amount of fruit produced by the tree against the value of its wood should be lower:

  • A palm tree producing even one kab (1.2 liter) of fruit may not be cut down.
  • An olive tree producing even one quarter of a kab of fruit may not be cut down.

However, even where wood is needed for construction purposes, it is preferable not to use the wood of fruit-bearing trees. For this reason, the wood used in the construction of the Tabernacle was not from fruit-bearing trees (Midrash Shemot Rabbah).
Many hundreds of years ago there lived a wise and holy man called Choni. One day Choni was journeying on the road and saw an old man planting a carob tree:

“How long will it take for this carob tree to produce fruit?” asked Choni.

“Oh, it will be about seventy years until fruit grows from this tree”, answered the old man.

“Seventy years?” exclaimed Choni. “Are you sure that you will be living to be able to enjoy the fruit of this tree?”

“No,” replied the old man, “I found carob trees in the world. Just as my forefathers planted them for me, so too, am I planting this carob tree for my children”. Talmud, Taanit 23a.

This story highlights our duty to plant for the next generation so that the benefits from nature, which we gained in our lifetime, can be enjoyed by the following generation.
If we are ever mindful of this and of our role as guardians of Nature, we will certainly be fulfilling our duties and responsibilities of L ‘OVDAH ULSHOMRAH.