Ecological Concerns in Rabbinic Literature

The ancient rabbinic sages did not see degradation of the natural environment as a systemic problem: but we can learn from their legislation addressing the more local environmental issues of which they were aware.

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Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Concern with the preservation of the planet [became] especially acute in the twentieth century. The proliferation of vast industries; the successful fight against disease, creating the danger of overpopulation; the use of nuclear energy; building activities on a scale unimagined in the past; the risk of global warming or the greenhouse effect, as it is called: all these factors contribute to anxiety about the ecological state of the world. The classical Jewish sources, coming from a time when the problem was hardly a serious one, cannot offer any kind of direct guidance.

jewish ecological concerns

The argument, on the basis of the verse: “And replenish the earth, and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creepeth upon the earth” (Genesis 1: 28), that, from the beginning, Judaism was opposed to ecological concerns, is extremely faulty. When this verse was written, there was no problem of ecology. On the contrary, at that time, man’s problem was how to master the environment. This is quite apart from the fact that Jewish interpretations of the verse have never understood it to mean that man’s right and duty to conquer nature is unlimited.

Concern with the cultivation of a wholesome environment is evident in the older Jewish sources, although these do not deal with the problem on a global scale, requiring the cooperative efforts of many nations, but with the more limited problem of how city-dwellers are to come to terms with their environment and how the individual is to avoid wasting nature’s resources.

Waste disposal, for instance, was a major concern in rabbinic times. Care was to be taken, the rabbis [of classical and late antiquity] urged, that bits of broken glass should not be scattered on public land where they could cause injury. Saintly men, the [Babylonian] Talmud [=BT] (Bava Kama 30a) remarks, would bury their broken glassware deep down in their own fields. Other rubbish could be deposited on public land, but only during the winter months when, in any event, the roads were a morass of mud because of the rains. In the Mishnah (Bava Batra 2), rabbinic concern for a peaceful and clean environment was given expression in definite laws A dovecote must not be kept within 50 cubits of a town and no one may keep a dovecote on his own property, unless his land extends at least 50 cubits in every direction around it. The reason is to prevent the doves from consuming the seeds sown in the neighboring fields.

Since a city is more attractive with a wide open space around it, no trees may be planted within a distance of 25 cubits from the city. If the trees were there before the city was built they can be cut down, but the owner is entitled to compensation for the loss of his trees. (All this obviously does not refer to the planting of trees as an adornment of the city, a concept unknown in Mishnaic times.) Carcasses, graves, and tanneries must be kept at a distance of at least 50 cubits from the city. A tannery must not be set up in such a way that the prevailing winds waft the unpleasant odor to the town.

A prohibition known as bal tashchit, “do not destroy,” is based by the Rabbis on the biblical injunction not to destroy fruit-bearing trees (Deuteronomy 20: 19), but it is extended by them to include wasting anything that can be used for the benefit of mankind. For instance, while it was the custom to rend the garments on hearing of the death of a near relative, to tear too much or too many garments violates this rule (BT Bava Kama 91b).

Maimonides formulates this as: “It is not only forbidden to destroy fruit-bearing trees but whoever breaks vessels, tears clothes, demolishes a building, stops up a fountain or wastes food, in a destructive way, offends against the law of ‘thou shalt not destroy.’” Maimonides’ qualification, “in a destructive way,” is intended to convey the thought that if, say, a fruit-bearing tree is causing damage to other trees, it may be cut down since then the act is constructive. A midrashic homily has it that the reason why the wood used for the Tabernacle in the wilderness was not from fruit-bearing trees, was to teach human beings that when they build their own homes they should use wood from other than fruit-bearing trees.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.