Composting: A Jewish Practice?

Turning & Returning

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"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.

Another composting method harnesses the power of worms, putting them in a bin with the food scraps and utilizing them as a mini-utilitarian workforce. Vermicomposting eliminates the need to turn the food scraps, because worms aerate the pile as they wriggle through it looking for another delicious orange peel to snack on.

A healthy compost bin requires a fairly particular recipe of wet matter like fruit and vegetables and dry matter like news clippings and leaves. If the recipe isn't right, the composting process does not work correctly and can result in horrific smells, bugs, flies, and other pests. (A well functioning compost bin should smell like soil, not putrid, rotting food.) Unfortunately, many compost novices understandably give up after one bad experience, when a few small tweaks to their recipe could set them back on track.

Composting Makes It Big

Despite these difficulties, over the last decade, the practice of composting has made its way into the mainstream, shedding its image as a hobby for hippies and hardcore gardeners. More and more rural and suburban residents are building bins in their backyards, and even city dwellers are finding ways to compost via worm bins or by bringing their food scraps to a nearby community garden.

composting jewishThe cities of San Francisco and Toronto even have citywide composting programs, where residents sort their food scraps and lawn clippings, and set them out for municipal pickup along with their recycling bin and (vastly reduced in size) garbage bag.

Getting back to Ben Bag Bag, as odd as it might sound, I think there is something deeply Jewish about the practice of composting. As Berkeley resident, Adam Edell, wrote on the Jewish food blog The Jew & The Carrot:

It is my understanding that in the Kabbalistic tradition of Rabbi Isaac Luria, the world was created through God's words, which were held in glass vessels. Unable to contain the power of their possibility, the vessels shattered, their shards scattered to the corners of an imperfect earth, leaving us as gatherers of these holy sparks, or klitat ha'nitzot.

It would seem that tending the compost pile is a manifestation of that instinct to take the broken, forgotten, used-up, and to transmute the mundane into something holy again: we feed our food scraps to our compost bin, knowing that the rich soil will give our fields a boost of nourishment come planting time. Some would say that as we "raise the sparks" we are taking part in Tikkun Olam; that is, repairing the fragments of the material world around us.

Similarly, in Midrash it says, "When the world was created, God made everything a little bit incomplete. Rather than making bread to grow out of the earth, God made wheat so that we might bake it into bread. Why? So that we might become partners in the work of creation."

From the microbes to the plants to the people who pick and prepare our food, there are many partners in creation, helping us to create a "new earth." Through composting, the sparks of our work are elevated, and the process starts again-- cyclical and sacred.

So, You Wanna Be A Composter…

Composting, like cooking, playing guitar, or studying Torah, takes a little know how and practice. But once you know a few basics (like what "green to brown ratio" means or which foods to leave out of the compost bucket) it is a surprisingly straightforward process. Follow the links below to become a compost master:
-         Composting 101
-         In your kitchen (here and here)
-         In your backyard (here)
-         On your farm (here)

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Leah Koenig

Leah Koenig is a freelance writer whose work has been published in The New York Times Magazine, Gastronomica, Jewish Living, Lilith, Culinate, Beliefnet and other publications.