Judaism and the Environment

The environment is a natural issue of concern for Judaism. Since the issue first became popular in secular culture in the ‘60s, a number of important articles on the subject have been written based on the very large number of Biblical, Rabbinic and mystical sources that deal with or touch on the issues involved.

Much of the discussion centers around the Biblical commandment of “bal tashchit”—not to destroy, without purpose, any object from which someone might derive pleasure. The source of the prohibition is the Biblical command that soldiers at war not cut down fruit trees to use their wood in besieging an enemy. (Deut. 20:19-20)

Wartime is, clearly, a time great need, and, sadly, of destruction. If limits are imposed on use of natural resources in a situation such as this, then clearly ecological concerns are well-rooted in Jewish tradition. Remembering that for Biblical-era armies, a restriction such as this is tantamount to a contemporary declaration placing half the available petroleum resources off-limits for a modern army, we must necessarily extend the prohibition to our less extreme circumstances. Wanton environmental destruction is certainly prohibited for anyone if it is prohibited for soldiers under the pressure of war and battle.

In fact, Maimonides includes a great number of destructive activities under this prohibitive rubric [—e.g. tearing clothes, wasting food—] thus indicating that the parameters of the prohibition were always seen be broader than the single case of fruit trees and war embodied in the Biblical verses.

Not only direct acts of wanton destruction are prohibited, but even indirect acts, such as cutting off water sources necessary for the trees to grow are also precluded. Similarly, when normal human activity does require some destruction of natural resources, decisions must be made in favor of methods that involve less rather than greater destruction—i.e. destroy the tree that does not bear fruit before the one that does bear fruit (Talmud - Baba Kama 91b)...


Beyond the prohibition of actual destruction, an entire series of laws deals with maintaining the general environmental quality of life. The [Talmud] requires:

    1) that one not open a shop in a courtyard if the noise pollution of customers will disturb his neighbor’s sleep

    2) that one must put a pigeon cote at least 50 cubits from town so that the scavenging birds not damage the town’s vegetable gardens

    3) that threshing floors must also be kept at this distance to prevent the chaff from creating an air pollution problem for the city. So too carrion, graves and tanneries also have this same distance requirement because of the odors they produce…

Environmental concerns play a role in other areas as well. God removed the seven indigent nations of Canaan before the advancing Jews led by Joshua, but only slowly, so that the land would not be barren and the environment thus destroyed. (Deut. 7:22)

The Book of Jonah ends with God’s explanation to the prophet of why the city was so important to Him. Part of the reason is the large number of human inhabitants of the city. But the climactic words of the book are “many animals.” They, too, and the environmental concern for their well-being were factored into God’s concern, and so too into ours.

Traditionally one says, “may it wear out and you acquire another one” to someone wearing a new garment. This is, however, not said for leather shoes as an animal must be killed for the wish to come true (O.C. 233:6). So, too, one who slaughters for the first time does not say the blessing “Shehechiyanu,” as an animal must be killed in the process (YD 28:2).


Even simple environmental amenities that improve the quality of life are subject to halachic concern. In that regard, [Biblical] cities in Israel were surrounded by a “migrash”—an area of 1,000 cubits left for public enjoyment in which nothing may intrude. For this reason trees must be kept 25 to 50 cubits (depending on the species of tree and the amount of shade each species has) from the city wall.

Further, according to the rabbis, the migrash may not be turned into a field, as it destroys the beauty of the city. Interestingly, a field may not be made into a migrash as it will diminish the crops…

An interesting law promoting the positive development of the environment in the land of Israel comes from the case of a farmer whose olive trees are swept away and are then found rooted in another farmer’s field. Though discussion and debate surround the question of who owns what with regard to the trees and the fruit that they bear in their new location, all agree that the trees are not to be returned to the original location. Rabbi Yochanan, the author of this law, explains his decision as emerging from his concern that Israel be well-cultivated and settled. Presumably the original farmer will replace his lost trees and two sets of trees will grow in the land, where only one set had existed before.

A similar concern leads to alteration in the Temple service. Olive wood and wood from grape vines are prohibited from use on the altar. One opinion holds that the reason is also concern for the settlement and cultivation of the land of Israel. The second opinion is more specific. These types of wood burn with a great deal of smoke and the air pollution is to be avoided.

In fact, most nuisances, if implemented for someone’s benefit and tolerated at that time by his neighbors, cannot subsequently be removed because of the latters’ complaints. This is not true, however, in four particular types of nuisance problems: Smoke, the odor of a privy, dust and vibration are assumed to be such great intrusions into a human being’s environment that no one can ever be assumed to have truly and completely accepted their presence.

Jerusalem as the holiest of cities also had special environmental legislation designed to protect its unique environment for the enjoyment of inhabitants and visitors. In that regard all garbage was removed from the city and no kilns were allowed to operate within its borders. In this way vermin and smoke were kept out of the city and the quality of life was improved. (Talmud - Baba Kama 82b)


Given the extent of Biblical and Rabbinic legislation in this area, one can reasonably ask whether any underlying principles or rationale can be found to explain the strong concern for environmental issues found in [Jewish law]. On analysis, several approaches seem to emerge from the sources.

Certainly the most direct and obvious answer is that the earth is God’s. Just as Adam was put in the Garden of Eden “to work it and watch over it” (Genesis 2:15), so too, we are required to watch over, preserve and protect God’s world. Perhaps the fullest treatment of this view appears in the works of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch who describes improper use of this world’s resources as theft from God and as reflecting an arrogant usurpation of God’s ownership of this world.

One interesting extension of this approach may be reflected in the numerous sources that equate ecological concern in Jewish law with maintaining the proper balance which God has built into this world. Nachmanides, in discussing Biblical prohibitions against mixing species (“Kilayim”), slaughtering an animal and its offspring on the same day, taking the mother bird when taking the eggs or young offspring, and castration, suggests that these laws emerge from a concern that all species be preserved and not disappear from this world. (commentary to Leviticus 19:19 and Deut. 22:6)

This “preservation of species” concern is given pragmatic rationale in the Talmud (Shabbat 77b): “Of all that the Holy One, Blessed be He, created in His world, He did not create a single thing without purpose…” There then follows a list of medicinal uses for even the lowliest of creatures such as snails, flies and mosquitoes…

A mystical approach to the ecological issue also suggests itself. In Kabbalah all objects, even inanimate ones—and certainly plant life and animals—all contain a spark of God. As such, all physical objects have the right to be treated with respect. The Baal Shem Tov is recorded as having said that “the presence of God permeates all four orders in the world: the inanimate objects, the plants, living things, and man. It is inherent in all creatures in the universe whether they are good or bad…”


Given all the positive Rabbinic and Biblical statements regarding environmental issues, why then do Jews not take a greater role and show greater concern for these issues?

Part of the answer may be our 2,000-year alienation from our land and natural environment in Israel. Certainly much more concern for the environment exists among Israelis, for whom agriculture is a constant presence in their lives, unlike their Diaspora brothers who rarely have anything to do, on a personal level, with the land or nature…

For our community to speak out on this issue it must first decide whether it is comfortable with the existing ecology movement. For a number of reasons we are not:

One of the founding attitudes of the ecology movement is an early and frequent critique of our Torah and its ecological attitudes, focused on God’s command to Adam to subdue or conquer the world. Ignoring all of the other sources that display ecological concern, this approach gives an exaggerated emphasis to this one verse and then goes on to suggest a return to paganism and its concept that every blade of grass, every tree, every animal has a deity that protects it. This, it is suggested, will move mankind back to proper respect for nature…

Paganism in fact does not have such a wonderful record. The Romans plowed salt into the ground to ruin the fertility of the Temple, and Isaiah 37:24 describes defoliation and ecological destruction by the pagans of his day. Further, Rabbi S.R. Hirsch argues cogently that ecological destruction implies lack of recognition of God’s ownership of the world and, therefore, is itself tantamount to paganism…

Closely related to this is the treatment of man as no more significant than animals. A new term “speciesism” has begun to creep into the lexicon, and it is used to refer to the human being’s “inappropriate” sense of superiority to other species. Similarly, almost all human activity and technology is seen as intrusive and destructive…

Judaism sees man as unequivocally superior to animals, and as able to make use of this world and all it contains for any and all positive purposes. In fact, creation is incomplete without us and we are duty bound to finish it. A prime example of the clash between a Jewish ecology and the current secular version is the previously-cited discussion of placing tanneries on the downwind side of the city. Where Judaism recognizes the necessity of these industries and places them where they will do the least harm, modern ecologists would seek to ban them altogether. Similarly, though fruit trees, in general, may not be destroyed, they may in fact, be cut down if the value of the wood is greater than the value of the fruit. (Talmud - Baba Kama 91b)

...The true meaning, then, of the Biblical command of “subdue the world” (Genesis 1:28) is not to conquer the world by raping and destroying its resources. Its true implication is found in God’s other statement to Adam about how to function in the Garden of Eden, i.e. “to work it and to watch it.” Responsible use mixed with sincere concern, progress with restraint, growth and technology with conservation and preservation, is the Torah’s ecological agenda.

Reprinted with permission from Jewish Action


by  Member of the Tribe
Posted in: Hot Topics