Perhaps the most fundamental Jewish teaching on the environment is, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” (Psalm 24:1)

The Talmudic sages assert that it follows that the role of mankind is to enhance the world as “co-partners of G-d in the work of creation.” (Talmud tractate Shabbat 10a).

There is a Midrash (a story that teaches a Torah lesson based on biblical events and values) that beautifully expresses the idea that God needs people to help tend the world:

“In the hour when the Holy one, blessed be He,
created the first man,
He took him and let him pass before all the trees of
the Garden of Eden and said to him:
“See my works, how fine and excellent they are!
Now all that I have created, for you have I created.
Think upon this and do not corrupt and desolate My World,
For if you corrupt it, there is no one to set it
right after you.”

The Jewish view is that everything belongs to God. We are to be stewards of the earth, to see that its produce is available for all God’s children. Property is a sacred trust given by G-d; people have custodial care of the earth, as opposed to ownership. Even the produce of the field does not belong solely to the person who farms the land. The poor are entitled to a portion:

And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corner of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleaning of thy harvest. And thou shalt not glean thy vineyard, neither shalt thou gather the fallen fruit of thy vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and for the stranger; I am the Lord, thy God.
(Lev. 19:9-10)

These portions set aside for the poor are not voluntary contributions based on kindness. They are, in essence, a regular divine assessment. Because God is the real owner of the land, he claims a share of His own gifts for the poor.

As a reminder that “the earth is the Lord’s,” the land must be permitted to rest and lie fallow every seven years (the sabbatical year):

And six years thou shalt sow thy land, and gather in the increase thereof, but the seventh year thou shalt let it rest and lay fallow, that the poor of thy people may eat; and what they leave, the beast of the field shall eat. In like manner thou shalt deal with the vineyard, and with thy oliveyard. (Exod. 23:10-11)

The Talmudic sages also indicated great concern about preserving the built environment and preventing pollution. They stated: “It is forbidden to live in a town which has no garden or greenery” (Kiddushin 4:12; 66d).

Threshing floors had to be placed far enough from a town so that it would not be dirtied by chaff carried by winds (Baba Batra 2:8).

Tanneries had to be kept at least 50 cubits from a town and could be placed only on the east side of a town, so that odors would not be carried by the prevailing winds from the west (Baba Batra 2:8,9).

In all, Judaism asserts that there is one God who created the entire earth as a unity, in ecological balance, and that everything is connected to everything else. This idea is perhaps best expressed by Psalm 104:

…Thou [God] art the One Who sends forth springs into
brooks, that they may run between mountains,
To give drink to every beast of the fields; the creatures
of the forest quench their thirst.

Thou art He Who waters the mountains from His upper

Thou art He Who causes the grass to spring up for the
cattle and herb, for the service of man, to bring forth
bread from the earth….

How manifold art Thy works, O Lord! In wisdom hast Thou
made them all; the earth is full of Thy glory.

Many Jewish prayers extol God for His wondrous creations. In the morning, religious Jews say the following prayer to thank God for the new day:

Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe.
Who formest light and createst darkness,
Who makest peace and createst all things.
Who in mercy givest light to the earth
And to them that dwell thereon,
And in Thy goodness renewest the creation
Every day continually.
How manifold are Thy works, O Lord!
In wisdom hast Thou made them all;
The earth is full of Thy possessions….
Be Thou blessed, O Lord our G-d,
For the excellence of Thy handiwork.

Or as it appears in Job 12:7-9:

But ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the sky, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth and it will teach you; the fish of the sea, they will inform you. Who among all these does not know the hand of the Eternal has done this?

These passages specifically imply that all beings, not just humans are part of creation, and that it is possibly only humans who question the authority or likelihood of God.

The Judaic tradition insists that we believe this is God’s world and not our own. As Rabbi Daniel Swartz says:

“To take seriously the notion that we are but leasing the planet from God is to provide ourselves with specific behavioral guidelines. One who leases is called, in general, a ‘shomer’, usually translated as ‘guardian’. The specific type of lease we have on Earth is that of a ‘sho’el’, a borrower. Borrowers may use any part of what they borrow – but they must ensure that at the end of the term of the lease, and at any given moment during the lease, the property is at least as valuable as it was at the beginning of the lease”.

On the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, which falls in February/March, a new year begins. It is the quietest New Year’s Day in the world, and yet, ‘Tu Bishvat’ – the New Year for Trees – is one of the most significant days in the calendar.

“When you come to the land and you plant any tree, you shall treat its fruit as forbidden; for three years it will be forbidden and not eaten. In the fourth year, all of its fruit shall be sanctified to praise the Lord. In the fifth year, you may eat its fruit.” (Leviticus 19:23-25)

“There are four new years… the first of Shevat is the new year for trees according to the ruling of Beit Shammai. Beit Hillel, however, places it on the fifteenth of that month”. (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:1)

Tu B’shvat is the New Year for calculating the age of trees for the purpose of preserving their fruit. The mystics of Safed, a sixteenth century city on a mountain-top in northern Israel, developed Tu Bishvat seders (ritual meals) to celebrate the presence of God in nature. Moses Cordovero, author of the Tu B’shvat Haggadah (seder guidebook) said that the principle of wisdom is to extend acts of love toward everything, including plants and animals.

In recent years there has been a revival of the Tu Bishvat Seder, which anticipates the redemption of all humanity and our return to the Garden of Eden, when we will eat the fruit from the Tree of Life. The Tu Bishvat Seder is a kabbalistic feast conducted by women, at which fruits, nuts, and wine are served, in a context of scriptural recitations and mystical teachings. This celebration of God’s natural creation is about the redemption not only of the Jewish people and all humanity, but of the whole planet, animals, plants, and Nature itself. It speaks to today’s concern with the environment, not in the language of science, but of mysticism.

Tree Planting & Bush Regeneration

Since 1901 the blue coin boxes of the Jewish National Fund (JNF) have been ubiquitous in every Jewish home with the aim of raising funds for the planting of forests and other environmental works in order to restore and maintain the fertility of the Land of Israel. In recent years the JNF has also organised voluntary tree planting and bush regeneration in Australia, including the Bondi – Bronte Beach coastal walk, and the approach road to Olympic Park.

Environmental Ethics, Food and Kashrut

When you are asked in the world to come, “What was your work?” and you answer, “I fed the hungry,” you will be told, “This is the gate of the Lord, enter into it, you who have fed the hungry.” (Midrash Psalms 118:17

This Midrash is from a collection of biblical commentaries collated in the third century CE.

In the Psalms we see the provision of food for all creatures as part of a divine ecological balance, in which the earth is the Lord’s and we are partners and co-workers with Him in protecting it. This idea is fully expressed in Psalm 104:

Thou [God] art the One Who sends forth springs into
brooks, that they may run between mountains,
To give drink to every beast of the fields; the creatures
of the forest quench their thirst…
Thou art He Who causes the grass to spring up for the
cattle and herb, for the service of man, to bring forth
bread from the earth…
How manifold are Thy works, O Lord! In wisdom hast Thou
made them all; the earth is full of Thy glory.

As religious Jews eat each food during the day they rememeber the divinity of its origin by making a blessing appropriate to the type of food being eaten. We bless the Almighty who “brings forth bread from the land, or creates the fruit of the trees, or the vegetables from the earth”.

Jews eat specific foods on particular festivals as symbols of the religious and historical significance of the occasion. The outstanding example is at the festival of freedom, Passover, at which is featured a special plate containing various symbolic items of food. There is the shank bone of a lamb – the Paschal lamb which the Bible commands us to eat in memory of the exodus; bitter herbs (raw horseradish) to remember the bitter and harsh experience of slavery; matzah – unleavened bread eaten for eight days to recall the urgency of the departure from Egypt; a roasted egg, a reminder of the offering made at the Temple in Jerusalem; ‘charoste’ – a mixture of nuts, apples, cinnamon and wine, which represents the mortar used by the slaves; and salt water into which green herbs, parsley, are dipped and eaten, to recall the tears of slaves.

Jewish dietary law (‘kashrut’) exists to ensure that all the food we eat is pure in every respect and conforms with divine commandments (‘kosher’). Animals must be slaughtered in a humane-as-possible fashion, and have all blood removed. Fruit and vegetables must have been tithed by the producer, with one tenth going to the poor. Foods which are likely to harbour disease or parasites if not perfectly fresh, such as shellfish, scavengers, insects or pork, are forbidden. Of course, for the observant, it is the commandment, not its beneficial result, which creates the law.

Preserving the natural order which makes our food pure and safe is a central part of the Jewish religious ethic. It is important that the environment, which is the source of the sustenance of future generations, is not sacrificed to the greed of the present moment, and we must be sure that the purity of our future food supplies is never placed at risk.

Collated by Josie Lacey OAM 2006