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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Judaism’s Approach to Environmental Quality

Filed under: World Jewry
Publication: Jewish Environmental Studies

No. 4

Those of us who are concerned about the slow destruction of our environment tend to turn to the legislative approach. On careful analysis, however, this, by itself, is far from being a panacea.1 It seems evident that the main key to the solution must be sought in the value system to which the individual subscribes. The definition of this value system and making it part of the mental makeup of society is the basic problem here. There are two approaches to finding the solution to this challenge: omphaloskepsis (contemplating one’s navel — i.e., introspection) and surveying the available literature for traditional solutions. When using this latter approach, Judaism — a culture originating three and a half millennia ago — would hardly seem to be a likely candidate for providing solutions to so modern a problem, but such a perception is misleading.

Halakhah and Agada

Before investigating this issue, we must explain the basic structure of the Torah, the repository of Judaic culture. The teachings of the Torah take two forms, termed agada and halakhah, respectively.

Agada consists of basic ideas and principles which are occasionally formulated as such, and at other times are taught in the form of metaphors and parables, or as narratives of past events. Their function is to guide the student through life’s challenges cognitively. In any given situation, a person is to evaluate his or her options rationally in terms of the guidelines given in the agada.

Halakhah, on the other hand, consists of well-defined instructions of what is to be done, and what actions are prohibited under the given circumstances. Knowing the reasons for the commandment is not relevant to its fulfillment. Halakhah is a strictly behaviorist system, designed to shape the personality via conduct.

It seems reasonable to claim that the amazing longevity and success of Judaism is due to the combination of these two systems, designed to develop — to the extent that they are followed — an individual who is fit to be a positive member of mankind, in general, and of the Jewish nation, in particular.

There are Jews who see their tradition essentially in terms of agada; they feel that halakhic regulations are not necessary. However, experience has shown that such Judaism cannot last.

There are others, primarily in the so-called “ultra-Orthodox” circles, who concentrate their efforts and studies on halakhah, paying scant attention to the agadic elements; these, too, are bound to fail in their Judaism. Only the proper combination of the two components leads to success.

The importance of agada is readily demonstrated by such talmudic statements as the declaration that Jerusalem was destroyed because its inhabitants were not prepared to go beyond the letter of the law (lifnim mishurat hadin).2 This makes it clear that agadic principles are to guide our conduct beyond mere halakhic obligations.3

Man as Administrator

Judaism strives to inculcate certain personality traits in its adherents. Two of these, in particular, are essential for the protection of the environment: concern for the environment on the part of the individual and a willingness to restrict one’s consumption.

First and foremost, Judaism teaches that man has been put into this world not as an absolute master, but rather as an administrator acting on behalf of the Creator. God’s first act after creating man is stated as follows: “The Lord God took the man and put him into the Garden of Eden to work it and guard it.”4 This makes clear that Adam’s task in the garden was not to enjoy its fruit — although that was certainly an accompanying fact — but rather to administer it, to take care of it.

The talmudic sages make this explicit. When Scripture commands us “You shall walk after the Lord your God,” they ask whether it is really possible to walk after God, Who is compared to a consuming fire.5 They explain the intent of the verse as follows: right after the creation of the world, “God occupied Himself first of all only with planting [the Garden of Eden]. Thus you too when you enter the Land, should occupy yourself, first of all, with planting.” The Prophet Isaiah also alluded to this concept when he said: “He did not create [the earth] in vain; He formed it to be inhabited.”6

Perhaps the most explicit, and at the same time the sternest, declaration of human responsibility for the management of the earth is the midrashic statement: “When God created the first man, he took him around to all the trees in the Garden of Eden and said to him, ‘See my handiwork, how beautiful and choice they are….[B]e careful not to ruin and destroy my world, for if you do ruin it, there is no one to repair it after you.'”7

One nineteenth-century commentator goes so far as to state “Then man became a worker of the earth (i.e., a farmer), and thereby the purpose of creation was fulfilled.”8

Now to some talmudic stories illustrating the responsibility of the individual toward the environment:

Once upon a time, a farmer was clearing his field, throwing rocks from his field onto the neighboring highway. A pious man passing by reprimanded him: “Fool! Why do you throw rocks from property which is not yours into your own property.” The farmer scoffed at these words. Some time later, he had to sell his field. One night, when passing by his former field, he stumbled and fell over one of the rocks he had thrown there. Lying there in agony, he realized how true had been the words of the pious man.9

Here is another story that brings home our obligation toward the coming generations:

The pious Choni HaMe’agel was walking on the road. He saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked the man, “How long until this tree will produce fruit?” He answered that it will take seventy years. Choni asked him, “Are you sure that you’ll still be around in seventy years?” The man replied, “Just as my fathers planted for me, so will I plant for my children.”10

We have here a clear statement of the responsibility of the individual for his environment as a fundamental principle in Judaism. This principle, however, would remain just that, with little impact on people’s conduct, if it were not for halakhah, a system of strict regulations guiding the Jew’s conduct. As noted, halakhah uses the behaviorist approach to shape our personalities and is absolutely necessary if the lofty, but poorly defined, ideals are to be translated into reality.

By way of illustrating the halakhic approach to imbue the individual with a sense of responsibility toward the environment, we take the laws prohibiting wanton destruction — bal tashchit.

“Do Not Destroy”

The commandment “do not destroy”11 can be seen as a direct outgrowth of our custodianship of the world. First and foremost, it means that we should be aware of the ownership rights of the Master of the Universe by showing respect for anything of value in His world. Here we bring the words of Rabbi S.R. Hirsch, the rabbi who was a pioneer in utilizing the opportunities brought by the emancipation of Jews in nineteenth-century Germany to integrate with Jewish tradition whatever is positive in modern culture.

“Do not destroy anything!” is the first and most general call of God, which comes to you, man….If you should regard the beings beneath you as being objects without rights, not perceiving God Who created them…you have no right to the things around you….As soon as you use them unwisely, you commit treachery against My world, you commit murder and robbery against My property….With this call He represents the greatest and the smallest against you and grants the greatest and the smallest a right against your presumptuousness.12

Any wanton destruction, whether through disdain or frivolity, is damage to God’s property. If the damage is done in anger, it is considered the first step in rebellion against God: “One who tears his clothes, breaks a vessel, or scatters his money in anger, should be in your eyes as an idolater.”13

The destruction of fruit trees is explicitly forbidden by Scripture.14 This is brought in the context of the siege of a city, where the trees are the enemy’s property — in other words, a setting in which we would expect the Torah to waive such fine considerations as the “sanctity” of plant life. After all, human life is in danger! Yet despite this, if it is feasible to use timber (non-fruit-bearing) trees for the siege, we are forbidden to destroy fruit trees. God Himself set an example by instructing us to build the Temple only with wood from timber trees.15

From the explicit prohibition against the destruction of fruit trees, our Sages deduced that it is all the more forbidden to destroy the fruits themselves.16 Destruction of food, particularly disrespectful handling of bread, man’s principal food,17 also shows ingratitude toward God, Who sustains us with bread.

In fact, according to halakhah, any usable item is covered by this prohibition. “One who breaks vessels, tears clothing, demolishes a building, stops up a well, or wastes food in a destructive fashion, transgresses the prohibition of ‘Do not destroy.'”18 (The broadening of the prohibition appears to stem directly from the words of the Torah, and is not merely a rabbinic enactment.19) Even the use of fuel is to be based on maximum efficiency. According to the words of our Sages in the Talmud, one who uses an oil lamp covered, consumes fuel wastefully and transgresses the prohibition “Do not destroy”; presumably the increased temperature speeds up fuel consumption. Similarly is anyone lighting a lamp with naphtha without covering it, evidently because of the increased evaporation of the fuel.20 Thus, the talmudic sages anticipated today’s energy conservation campaigns by millennia.

Unlike many other commandments, the prohibition “Do not destroy” applies also to indirect actions. For example, one may not divert a stream if, as a result, fruit trees will wither.21 (Still, the tree owner is not obligated to maintain the tree by watering it and otherwise caring for it.22) It should be noted that “Do not destroy” applies even to ownerless property,23 so that it covers pollution of the atmosphere, lakes, oceans, aquifers, and so on.

One of the treasures the world provides us with, is beauty; it, too, should be preserved. Although the Torah did not explicitly command to protect beauty, it did give us a hint that this is the will of God. The ceiling of the Tabernacle was made of artistically woven curtains of blue, purple, and scarlet thread; the Torah required that these curtains be covered by a protective layer of hides. “The Torah taught us derekh eretz (ways of the world), that one should care for beautiful things.”24

Our most precious material gift of all, the human body, also needs care and cultivation — not for its own sake, but to keep it ready and fit to serve us at all times. It, too, is included in the mitzvah “Do not destroy.” The extent of the Torah’s concern for this aspect is highlighted in the Talmud’s question: by what right does a Jew eat wheat bread, when barley bread is much cheaper and one can subsist on it? The answer: “Not destroying one’s body is more important [and wheat is more healthful].”25 It is interesting to note the ruling of a later halakhic authority that one who overeats transgresses the prohibition “Do not destroy” twice — he wastes the food and also harms his body.26

Marring the landscape, even if not included in the prohibition “Do not destroy” from the halakhic standpoint, is clearly against the spirit of the Torah, which puts heavy emphasis on city planning.27

Careful attention to the mitzvah “Do not destroy,” together with the general principles previously mentioned, foster in a Jew a special appreciation for all of creation, animate and inanimate; he will come to see each creature as a partner in the service of God Who created us all.

Limiting Personal Consumption

Having discussed at length the importance of concern for the environment, we are ready to note that the ecological problem has another source. Two hundred years ago, economist Thomas Malthus published a thesis according to which mankind has a built-in time bomb ticking away inside it. The world’s population multiplies at an ever-increasing rate, with which the rate of food production cannot possibly keep up. Although his thesis is rational, it is highly misleading. More recent research has found that this is not the primary problem at all.

A factor of considerably greater importance is average individual consumption, which is increasing at a much faster rate than that of population growth, as indicated by the following figures: In the course of thirty years, the world’s population doubled, while energy consumption per capita increased eightfold in this period. We may add to this the fact that in North America and Western Europe, 10 percent of the world’s population consumes 50 percent of the world’s energy.

At this point, then, the real danger to the world lies in this excessive consumption. Not only does excessive energy consumption deplete the world’s energy store, it also is the chief cause of the greenhouse effect, causing a potentially dangerous warming of the atmosphere.

This over-consumption is also manifest in our use of raw materials. It can even be found in our dietary habits. Note that the production of one kilogram of beef consumes sixteen kilograms of grain.28 People are well aware of this; the problem is that they are not prepared to act accordingly.

All this shows that the root of the problem lies in a selfish worldview that inflates personal consumption far beyond the essential. In a population motivated by this view, each individual strives to expand his sphere of control as much as possible. Collision, conflict, and the resultant waste are inevitable.

Regarding this problem, too, the Torah provides a solution. The approach is essentially to replace our naturally self-centered attitude with a more altruistic or idealistic one. By adopting a goal beyond ourselves, our consumption will be guided by our real needs rather than by our desires.

The most explicit and general Torah statement in this direction is the scriptural commandment “be dedicated”29 or, in other words, refrain from self-indulgence and luxuries.30 The Hebrew word here is kadosh (usually translated as “holy”), which signifies dedication to an ideal. In explaining the significance of this commandment, Ramban points out that, without it, a person could indulge his basest desires and coarsest lusts without transgressing any other Torah precept. Were it not for this commandment, a person could be depraved with a “license of the Torah”!

Elsewhere,31 Ramban points out that the commandment “You shall do that which is fair and good in God’s eyes” serves a similar function in the interpersonal sphere. We dare not be satisfied fulfilling the explicit regulations given in the Torah, but rather must see before our eyes the ideal of a harmonious society which is “fair and good in God’s eyes.”32 The Talmud blames the destruction of Jerusalem on the neglect of this rule.33 The well-known commandment “Love your neighbor as yourself”34 is, according to the talmudic sage, Hillel, the whole of Torah, with all else merely a commentary.35 It, too, militates against the self-centered orientation.

“Noble ideas,” you may say, “but how are they to be implemented?” I have been told of a government official, very concerned about the environment and instrumental in obstructing a number of industrial developments for ecological reasons. But when he wanted to get a pack of cigarettes, he would jump into his car and drive down the block to buy it. How can these ideals be made part of daily conduct?

The answer lies in halakhah. Halakhah is a body of strict, detailed demands which the Torah places upon the Jew. Halakhah is not interested in the individual’s worldview, and the demands of halakhah are not affected by such things. On the contrary, by guiding one’s actions and thereby molding one’s character, halakhah supports agada — the ideology — enabling it to develop man’s worldview and, hence, again, his conduct.

In our context, halakhic dietary restrictions are a good example of how halakhah inculcates self-control and regulation of appetite. By way of illustration, let us take the halakhot of shechitah (slaughter of an animal). Here the law requires the use of an extremely sharp knife, totally free of nicks. Shechitah is performed on the animal’s throat by means of a single cut, severing esophagus, windpipe, and the blood vessels supplying the animal’s brain. Because of the sharpness of the knife, it is reasonable to assume that the animal will hardly feel the cut itself — and seconds later the brain has been drained of blood, so that sensation is no longer possible.

Thus, halakhah avoids the possible development of cruelty in the slaughterer. In the words of the talmudic sages: “Does it then matter to God whether one slaughters from the front of the neck or from the back (which is a far more painful process)? We may conclude that the commandments were given only to refine people.”36

On the interpersonal level, let us illustrate the halakhic approach to educating the individual to concern and care for the feeling of others by means of the laws concerning “damages to the neighbors.”

Damages to Neighbors

In the commandment to “love your fellow as yourself,”37 the Torah has given us a principle which is indeed great,38 but which would remain a mere utopia were it not anchored in halakhah. One of the halakhic areas which educates us to love our fellow and to be concerned for his welfare is that of “damages to neighbors.” This is a broad topic, which also has a significant influence on the ecology.

The Torah deals at length with owners’ responsibility for damages caused by their possessions, at times even if caused only indirectly and also if caused by an object which technically they did not own.

In the case of an inanimate object, such damages are classified as “damages caused by a pit.” The responsibility rests with the person who dug or uncovered the pit in the public domain.39 In this category are damages caused by a banana peel thrown in the street, or dangerous waste material disposed of in the public domain. When the object is transported by natural forces, such as the wind, it is in the category of “fire,”40 which includes damage caused by pollution of air or waterways.

Surprisingly, we are cautioned against causing the loss of benefit to another, even if he has no legal claim to it.41 The principle that “one should not drain the water of his well when others need it” is found in the Mishnah.42 A Jew is even commanded to prevent damage threatening his neighbor from an outside force.43

The sages of the Talmud expanded these rules also to psychological disturbances, such as possible exposure to a neighbor’s observation, noises, and so on. Anyone suffering such annoyances may appeal to the courts to force his neighbor to remove them. This may include the removal of the cause of the noise, although the noise is only indirectly due to it,44 and even if its removal will cause the owner financial hardship. Based on these rules, Ryvash45 drafted the guiding principle: “One may not protect his own property from damage at the expense of his fellow’s damage.”46 This principle could serve as a guideline in modern legislation for pollution control.

Four particular nuisances are especially liable to legal action according to Jewish law: smoke, sewage odors, dust and similar aerosols, and vibrations.47 Even if consent had initially been given, the offended neighbor can retract it. All of these are forms of pollution which are a source of great concern to this day. In particular, halakhah limits the proximity to the city of certain industrial processes, to prevent air pollution within the city. Included are threshing floors (because of the chaff), processing of carcasses, tanneries (because of the smell), and furnaces (because of the smoke).48 Tanneries are specifically limited to the areas east of the city, in consideration of the prevalent wind patterns in the Land of Israel.49

We have already mentioned the value the Torah places on beauty. It is obvious, then, that mere aesthetic damage such as littering in public places is also included in the prohibition against causing damage — if not according to the letter of halakhah, then according to its spirit. We find at least one example of such legislation: furnaces were forbidden in Jerusalem because the smoke blackened the walls of the houses, “and this is a disgrace.”50

All the above is only a small sampling from over one hundred paragraphs in the Shulchan Arukh51 which deal with damages caused to neighbors, most of them environmental. One who studies and applies these laws in daily life becomes considerate and sensitive, and will not make light of harming the environment. Such an individual will beware of causing damage in general, and ecological damage in particular. Above all, concern for the environment will restrict the individual’s own consumption.


We assume that the resolution of the ecological threat faced by our generation must involve an appropriate shaping of society’s attitudes. Based on this assumption, we showed that the Judaic tradition has much to teach us in this context. It is designed to imbue its adherents with a sense of responsibility for the state of the environment. In addition, it strives to limit the individual’s consumption to the level required for efficient functioning, eliminating excessive consumption.

This is accomplished, on the cognitive level, by the formulation of rational ideals, rounded out with illustrative stories. These ideas, in conjunction with the above-mentioned obligation to go beyond the letter of the law, can make substantial contributions to the protection of the environment. The implementation of these ideals is reinforced and substantially strengthened by halakhic regulations, which also serve to mold the personality behavioristically.

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BT/JT – Babylonian/Jerusalem Talmud MR – Midrash Rabbah MT – Mishneh Torah of Rambam

1. Cf. M. Gerstenfeld, Environment and Confusion: An Introduction to a Messy Subject (Jerusalem: Academon, 1994). 2. BT Bava Metzi’a 30b. 3. For an extensive discussion of this and other non-halakhic obligations, see the author’s Facing Current Challenges (Brooklyn: Hemed, 1998); Essay 57. 4. Genesis 2:15. 5. Deuteronomy 4:24. 6. Isaiah 45:18. 7. MR Kohelet 7:13. 8. R. N.Tz.Y. Berlin on Genesis 2:4. R. Berlin was the final dean of the Talmudic Academy of Volozhin (1803-1892), the prototype of the modern large yeshiva. 9. BT Bava Kama 50b. 10. BT Ta’anit 23a. 11. Deuteronomy 20:19. 12. Rabbi S.R. Hirsch, Horeb (London: Soncino Press, 1962), chap. 56 (#397) from BT Shabbath 105b. 13. Ibid., #398. 14. Deuteronomy 20:19. 15. Exodus 26:15; MR Exodus 35:2. 16. Sifrey, Deuteronomy #203. 17. Leviticus 26:26; Isaiah 3:1. 18. MT Melakhim 6:10 and note 21, below. 19. Sedey Chemed, Kelalim, Beith #17; Peiath HaSadeh, ibid. #47. 20. BT Shabbat 67b. 21. Sifrey, Deuteronomy #203. 22. Chazon Ish on MT Melakhim 6:8. 23. Shulchan ‘Arukh HaRav, Shemirat HaGuf WeHaNe-fesh, chap. 14. 24. Rashi, Exodus 26:13; Yalkut Shim’oni #422. 25. BT Shabbat 129a and 140b. 26. Orach Meysharim (Mainz, 1878), sec. 29:6. The author, R. Menachem Trevis, lived in nineteenth-century Germany. 27. For an extensive discussion, see the author’s Facing Current Challenges, Essay 36. 28. F.M. Lappe, Diet for a Small Planet (New York: Ballentine, 1975), pp. 11, 382. 29. Leviticus 19:2. 30. Sifra, Kedoshim, begin. 31. Deuteronomy 6:18. 32. Facing Current Challenges, Essay 12. 33. BT Bava Metzi’a 30b. 34. Leviticus 19:18. 35. BT Shabbat 30a. 36. MR Genesis 44:1. 37. Leviticus 19:18. 38. JT Nedarim 9:4. 39. Mishnah Bava Kama 1:1 and commentaries ad loc.; ibid., chap. 3. 40. Mishnah Bava Kama 1:1 and commentaries ad loc. 41. BT Yevamot 44a (Mishnah Yevamot 4:11). 42. According to SeMaG (neg. #229) and Meiri (BT Yevamot 44a), the prohibition is based on bal tashchit. 43. BT Bava Metzi’a 31a; Shulchan Arukh, Choshen Mishpat 259:9. 44. BT Bava Bathra 23a; Shulchan Arukh, Choshen Mishpat 155:39. 45. Rabbi Yitzchak ben Sheshet (1326-1408), a major decisor in Spain and North Africa. 46. Responsa RYVaSh #196. 47. Shulchan Arukh, Choshen Mishpat 155:36. 48. M Bava Bathra 2:8-9; Shulchan Arukh, Choshen Mishpat 155:22-23. 49. M Bava Bathra 2:9. 50. Rashi BT Bava Kama82b. 51. Shulchan Arukh, Choshen Mishpat #153-6.