Joel Hoffman
Rabbi, Teacher, Columnist

Why The Environment is a Jewish Issue

Jewish texts going as far back as the Torah are full of teachings and instructions pertaining to nature and the environment.

One of the 613 Mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah is not to destroy fruit trees in an offensive war (Deut. 20:19).  The name of this Mitzvah is Baal Tash’hit, which means “don’t destroy”.  The Rabbis in the Talmud taught that, in fact, all forms of wasting are a violation of the Mitzvah of Baal Tash’hit, and gave several examples such as the breaking vessels in anger and causing a lamp to unnecessarily burn more oil.  The Mitzvah of Baal Tash’hit teaches us to conserve resources.

Additionally, according to a Midrash, God has informed us that we are also responsible for preserving his creations with the following words: “See my works, how fine and excellent they are!  All that I created, I created for you.  Reflect on this, and do not corrupt or desolate my world; for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you.” (Midrash Eccesiates Rabbah 7:13)

Another classical Jewish text from around 2,000 years ago teaches: “even those creatures that you deem superfluous in this world such as flies, fleas and gnats, even they were included in Creation, and God’s purpose is carried out through everything – even a snake, a scorpion, a gnat or a frog.”  (Midrash Genesis Rabbah 10:7) Thus, everything has a purpose.

Another Mitzvah is Shmita which is not working the land during the seventh year, which teaches us about ecological sustainability. Other Mitzvot include maintaining green belts around cities (Numbers 35:4), the prohibition against grafting diverse seeds and cross breeding animals (Leviticus 19:19), and Shabbat, which is a weekly rest for not only humans, but for animals as well. Rabbinic texts are also full of numerous laws pertaining to waste disposal and pollution, as well as the directive that if a person takes water from a well but does not use it all, s/he should not throw it out but find some productive use for it.

From the above examples, one can see that the Traditional Judaism was very progressive when it came to views towards the natural world and the environment, especially when compared to their historical context.

God wants us to not just preserve the natural world, but to also appreciate and enjoy it.  Therefore, Jewish law requires a blessing to be said upon seeing wonders such as lightening, rainbows, shooting stars, the ocean, etc., as well over food, fragrant trees and flowers.  It is a Jewish tradition to say 100 blessings per day, which means 100 times per day we are supposed to pause, appreciate and enjoy.

When it comes to the environment Judaism does not provide a list of specific things to do.  Rather, classical Jewish texts provide a framework for defining the source of the problems and evaluating possible solutions.

Today we are faced with numerous environment-damaging realities such as global warming, electromagnetic radiation, pollution, toxic waste, etc., and it is a Mitzvah to do something about it.

About the Author
Rabbi Joel E. Hoffman is a special education teacher for his "day job," and in his free-time he teaches and writes about Judaism.