Composting: A Jewish Practice?

Turning & Returning


“Turn it and turn it for everything is in it.”

When the first century sage, Yohanan Ben Bag Bag, uttered these words, his mind was on Torah. What he meant was that the entire universe is contained within the Torah, and to access its wisdom, one must read it over and over–uncovering a new layer of meaning with each turn of the scroll.

The first time I encountered this saying, I was standing in the dining hall at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center. The Freedman Center is known for its eco-friendly practices, including composting the food waste from its dining hall. As I stood before the food scrap bucket, poised to scrape in a few leftover bites of salad, my eye caught a sign taped directly above it. On the sign, next to a small photograph of two hands cupping a small mound of dirt it said: “Turn it and turn it for everything is in it.” Of course!

composting jewishThe inside of a compost pile–made up of layers that get “turned” every so often (more on that later)–teems with life as countless hard-working microorganisms rebuild the universe out of our banana peels. What could be a better physical metaphor for the Torah than a healthy mound of soil?

Eliminating Waste

A May 2008 article in the New York Times reported that, “Americans waste an astounding amount of food–an estimated 27% of the food available for consumption.” Moreover, we generate almost 30 million tons of food waste each year, which equals about 12% of the total waste stream. In addition to clogging up landfills, rotting food produces methane gas, which contributes to global warming. In contrast, composting–the process of aerobically breaking down biodegradable organic matter–reclaims that food waste as a resource, producing usable, nutrient-rich soil that can be used for landscaping, in house plants or, coming full circle, to grow more food.

There are several different ways to compost, including disposing of food and yard waste in a compost bin (either homemade or store-bought) and “turning” or rotating it with a shovel to aerate the pile, which aids the decomposition process. As the food breaks down it generates a lot of heat, which speeds things up even more, turning yesterday’s breakfast waste of egg shells and coffee grounds into tomorrow’s soil.

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Leah Koenig is a writer and cookbook author whose work has been published in The New York Times Magazine, Saveur, CHOW, Food Arts, Tablet, Gastronomica, and Every Day with Rachael Ray. Leah writes a monthly food column for The Forward and a bimonthly column for called “One Ingredient, Many Ways.” She is the former Editor-in-Chief of the award-winning blog, The Jew & The Carrot, and she is a frequent contributor to, where her recipes are very popular, and highly praised. Her first cookbook, The Hadassah Everyday Cookbook: Daily Meals for the Contemporary Jewish Kitchen, was published by Rizzoli in 2011. The book was named one of the “Best Books of 2011? by Library Journal and The Kitchn called it “a big, beautiful book that is also down-to-earth and completely accessible.”

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