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Are we lagging Behind on Green Issues?

by Rabbi Yossi Ives MA

  

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As a boy of six I was walking to Shul with my father one morning and I unthinkingly tore some leaves off the hedge we were passing. In disapproval my father told me the Chassidic tale1 of how Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch as a young boy carelessly ripped a leaf of a tree and was told by his father, Rabbi Sholom Dovber, that God had his intention for that leaf and he was not to damage it unnecessarily. An almost identical story is told by Aryeh Levine about Rav Kook: “As we were walking I plucked some flower or plant: he trembled, and quietly told me that he always took great care not to pluck, unless it were for some benefit…”.2

The Torah proscribes wanton destruction,3 even at a time of war. So writes Rabbi Aaron Halevi of Barcelona,4 “This is the way of the devout and those who seek good deeds… they never destroy even a grain of mustard, and are upset at any destruction they see.”

Scriptural writings are full of natural imagery and are steeped in respect for nature, while biblical and later rabbinic law provide comprehensive legislation on issues such as conservation, animal welfare, species preservation, sanitation and pollution.

There are dozens of exhortation in rabbinic writings to learn self-improvement from natural phenomena and non-human life
The Torah orders the creation of green belts around cities,5 and the laws against grafting diverse seeds and cross breeding animal species6 can be understood in modern terms as concern for biodiversity.7 Shabbat is a weekly rest for humans, animals and the natural world.8 We are called upon in Halachah to offers blessings for all manner of natural phenomena (rainbow, lightning, shooting stars, the first blossoms of a tree, etc.). A most dramatic ecological gesture is Shemitah, the seventh year rest for the environment, when all fields lie fallow. Maimonides9 declares that meditating on nature is a one of the key ways a person can fulfil the commandment to “love God with all your heart…”

There are dozens of exhortation in rabbinic writings to learn self-improvement from natural phenomena and non-human life. Cruelty to animals is repeatedly prohibited in the Torah and the Talmud and later codes – and notably is considered one of the seven Noahide Laws incumbent on all humankind. Hunting is seriously frowned upon, more likely banned, in Judaism, while sensitivity to animals is a frequent motif in Talmudic and Chassidic literature. One notable example: Rebbi, the great codifier of the Mishnah, had his thirteen-year illness attributed to a single act of minor insensitivity towards a goat.10

Justice and fairness, especially towards those vulnerable, is a theme running through scripture. Every seven years all debt would be cancelled – an interesting model for the issue of Third World debt in our era.

Two thousand years ago the Talmud11 extensively covers the regulation against atmospheric, water and even noise pollution, and arising from Deuteronomy12 issues of waste disposal.

We may therefore ask why Judaism, which comes with first-class environmental credentials, appears in many instances to be lagging behind in ecological consciousness.

At conferences and in rabbi’s sermons environmental issues are rarely on the agenda. While most Jewish people I have spoken to understand the problem of Third World debt and appreciate the fundamentals of fair trading, there doesn’t seem to be a clear, never mind vocal, Jewish response on the issue.

A moral consciousness based on Torah values would surely see merit in the argument for ethical investments, to ensure that monies are not invested in companies that use child labour, create environmental degradation or are socially irresponsible. After all, “Justice, justice you shall pursue”.13  

Footnotes

  • 1. Sefer Hatoldot-Chabad Vol XIII.
  • 2. Lachai Ro’i p. 15.
  • 3. Duet. 20:19.
  • 4. Chinuch, 529.
  • 5. Numbers 35:4.
  • 6. Leviticus 19:19.
  • 7. see Nachmanides on Leviticus 19:19 based on Jerusalem Talmud Kilayim 1:7.
  • 8. Horeb, Samson Raphael Hirsch.
  • 9. Mishne Torah, Yesodei Hatorah 2:2.
  • 10. Talmud, Baba Metzia 85a.
  • 11. particularly Baba Batra chap. 2.
  • 12. 23:12.
  • 13. Deut. 16:20.

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Shabbat
(pl: Shabbatot). Hebrew word meaning "rest." It is a Biblical commandment to sanctify and rest on Saturday, the seventh day of the week. This commemorates the fact that after creating the world in six days, G-d rested on the seventh.
Torah
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Talmud
Usually referring to the Babylonian edition, it is a compilation of Rabbinic law, commentary and analysis compiled over a 600 year period (200 BCE - 427 CE). Talmudic verse serves as the bedrock of all classic and modern-day Torah-Jewish literature.
Halachah
Jewish Law. All halachah which is applicable today is found in the Code of Jewish Law.
Maimonides
Moses son of Maimon, born in Spain in 1135, died in Egypt in 1204. Noted philosopher and authority on Jewish law. Also was an accomplished physician and was the personal doctor for members of the Egyptian royalty. Interred in Tiberius, Israel.
Chassidic
(Pl.: Chassidim; Adj.: Chassidic) A follower of the teachings of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), the founder of "Chassidut." Chassidut emphasizes serving G-d with sincerity and joy, and the importance of connecting to a Rebbe (saintly mentor).
Seder
Festive meal eaten on the first two nights of the holiday of Passover (In Israel, the Seder is observed only the first night of the holiday). Seder highlights include: reading the story of the Exodus, eating Matzah and bitter herbs, and drinking four cups of wine.
Shul
(Yiddish) Synagogue.
Midrash
(Pl. Midrashim). Non-legal material of anecdotal or allegorical nature, designed either to clarify historical material, or to teach a moral point. The Midrashim were compiled by the sages who authored the Mishna and Talmud (200 BCE-500 CE).
Aaron
Brother of Moses. First High Priest of Israel and progenitor of all Kohanim (priests) until this very day. Died in the year 1272 b.c.e.
Psalms
The Book of Psalms. One of the 24 books of the Bible. Compiled by King David; mostly comprised of poetic praise for G-d. A large part of our prayers are culled from this book.
Rambam
Acronym for Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, widely known as Maimonides. Born in Spain in 1135, died in Egypt in 1204. Noted philosopher and authority on Jewish law. Also was an accomplished physician and was the personal doctor for members of the Egyptian royalty. Interred in Tiberius, Israel.
Deuteronomy
The fifth of the Five Books of Moses. This book is a record of the monologue which Moses spoke to the Israelites in the five weeks prior to his passing.
Mishnah
First written rendition of the Oral Law which G-d spoke to Moses. Rabbi Judah the Prince compiled the Mishna in the 2nd century lest the Oral law be forgotten due to the hardships of the Jewish exiles.
Lubavitch
Also known as “Chabad,” Lubavitch is the name of a Chassidic Group founded in the 1770s. “Lubavitch” is the name of the Belarusian city where four of the Chabad Rebbes (leaders) were based. Today, the movement is based in Brooklyn, New York, with branches worldwide. Two of the most fundamental teachings of Chabad are the intellectual pursuit of understanding the divine and the willingness to help every Jew who has a spiritual or material need.