Green and ancient: A reading for Tu Bishevat on Jewish environmentalism

Sections of the Jewish religious public refer in cynical skepticism, not to say protest, to attempts to give new meaning and new character to dates in the Hebrew calendar. The same is true of Tu b’Av’s renewal of Love’s Day, and Tu Bishevat’s transformation into environmental day. Cynics should be ignored, and these tendencies should be welcomed and encouraged. They make a significant contribution to strengthening the general public’s loose connection with the Hebrew calendar. Moreover, these days are dedicated to the contents that in order for the general public to adopt them, they must really become an integral part of Hebrew culture. There is no better way than to note every year, on Tu Bishevat, the precepts between us and the human environment in particular and the natural environment in general.

Intensive environmentalism is rightly considered a postmodern phenomenon that attempts (and sometimes pretending) to fix the world that is being destroyed by processes that are the result of modern life development. That is why many are surprised to discover that ancient religions have inherited and developed ecological teachings in the fields of ideology, theology, philosophy and environmental practice, and that this is not a postmodern innovation.

Religious views offer a balanced and harmonious approach. The source of an ancient Jewish view is found in some places in the Bible such as the book of Genesis 2, 15: “And the LORD God took the Adam, and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it (לְעָבְדָהּ) and to preserve it (לְשָׁמְרָהּ).” The connection between these two words – “Leovda” (to cultivate it) and “Leshomra” (to preserve it) expresses the balance formula, the golden path that allows harmony between human beings and their world, and provides a way to a solution that is both moral and practical.

“Leovda” and “Leshomra”

Many commentators argue that this imperative is not limited to heaven alone. God has given his world to human’s control and enjoyment, but on condition that they keep it and adopt an ecological approach to their way of life and behavior. And so we learned in the ancient Jewish legend:

“When God created Adam, He took him and show him all the trees of Eden, and Said to him: See My deeds, how handsome and fine they are. Everything I created for you. Be aware that you will not spoil and ruin my world, that if you spoil – no one will fix it after you.” (Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabbah)

 This short source incorporates principles developed in theological views of Judaism: Contrary to postmodern ecological perceptions, humans are not marginal to creation. “Everything I created – I created for you,” but it is the responsibility of the person to find the balance between “to cultivate” – to intervene in nature in order to exist, and “to preserve” – to balance this intervention that will not lead to destruction and spoilage.

On a practical level, this moderate approach has a chance of becoming widely accepted in the broadest strata of human society, which do not accept the radicality of some of the green movements, but are concerned about the harm to quality of life and the environment. The Jewish approach, whose origins are developed in Talmudic law, includes a detailed set of laws and rules that apply to all areas of the environment and establish practical rules of conduct.

When analyzing these halakhic laws, some appear to be identical to the enactment of environmental laws and environmental planning in every secular-sovereign parliament today. However, it should be noted that contemporary legislation is in fact a defensive and responsive legislation that violates the balance of nature and the destruction of the environment, while halakhic rules in this area have been set up in the first place so that we do not reach the sad situation we are in today.

Animals and vegetation

One of the most widespread and sweeping and decisive prevention rules for environmental protection is the prohibitive of “Don’t destroy”. It comes from Deuteronomy 20:19: “When thou shalt besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, thou shalt not destroy the trees thereof by wielding an axe against them; for thou mayest eat of them, but thou shalt not cut them down; for is the tree of the field man, that it should be besieged of thee? “

 Even in the extreme and inconsiderate situation of its very essence – war – the Torah requires man to consider the environment and avoid destruction. Halakha, of course, prohibits the destruction of trees in a peaceful and calm state. The normative system, especially the halakhic system, has extended this ban overwhelmingly, prohibiting plant destruction in general, destroying animals, destroying property and preserving the public domain.

Halachic scholars did not see the public domain as no man’s land that anyone can do in it as they wish, as the following Talmudic story teaches us:

“A tale about a man who was taking out stones from his land and throws them to the public domain. A righteous man sees him doing this and said: “Empty-headed! What do you derive from a domain that is not your own to your own domain?!” The man mocks him. After a while the man was forced to sell his field, and he was walking in the same public domain and failed with the same stones. Said: rightly told me the righteous man:  What do you derive from a domain that is not your own to your own domain!” (BT, Baba Kama, 50b) That is: the domains owned by us are sometimes ours and sometimes passes to others, but it is precisely the public domain that always remains ours! The Halakha did not, of course, make do with beautiful stories and set rules and details regarding the prohibition of destruction in the public domain.


Another important area of halakhic ecological laws concerns water conservation and quality. With regard to the necessity and importance of water, Halacha has set clear rules for the rights and obligations that the society and individuals have in connection with water. These rules concern the creation and development of water resources, their use rights, the proper maintenance of reservoirs and water facilities, the prevention of water pollution and the awareness of the danger of contaminated water.

Other areas concern noise hazards in a residential area, urban environmental planning, industrial damages in urban or agriculture areas, waste disposal problems, agricultural planning, ornamental and natural vegetation.

One of the areas where we find halakhic literature that has evolved over the centuries is the field of air pollution and smoke damage. From rabbinic literature reviewed on various issues related to smoke and bad odor we find that there is actually nothing new under the sun. The same problems that preoccupy man in the postmodern era have been discussed by scholars about 1,500 years ago. It can be said that generally on the subject of ecological hazards, the civil legal approach and customary legislation today conforms to ancient law. Individual health and well-being precede other considerations; The quality of life of the individual must be taken into consideration and eliminated and prevented not only from harming his health but also those that bother and distress him.

Halakha also refers to the tension between the damage done to the individual and sometimes to the group as a result of a bad smell or smoke and the problem of eliminating a source of income if we want to limit the cause of the infection. Halakha will not in any case decide to eliminate the cause of the pollution, and the livelihood of the city or the environment will often be taken into consideration, also at the cost of environmental damage. This is the balancing question that I began with: Can it be possible to simultaneously to “cultivate it” – to act in nature, to create, and at the same time “to preserve it” – to avoid annoyances and ecological damages?

About the Author
Rabbi Naftali Rothenberg is the rabbi of Har Adar township, Israel, and a senior research fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute
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