The following environmentally-themed Jewish passages can be used as the basis of a text study, a starting point for discussion or included on a page of Living Talmud about contemporary environmental issues. In addition, clergy and lay officiants can use these resources to emphasize the Jewish nature of environmental responsibility.
Caring for the Earth
God created humanity in the Divine image, in the Divine image did God create humanity; male and female God created them. God blessed them and said to them: Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on the earth. God said, See, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food. (Genesis 1:27-29)
The Eternal God took the man (Adam) and placed him in the garden of Eden, to keep it and to watch over it. (Genesis 2:15)
When God created Adam, God led him around all the trees in the garden of Eden. God said to him, See how beautiful and praiseworthy all of My works are? Everything I have created has been created for Your sake. Think of this, and do not corrupt or destroy my world; for if you corrupt it, there will be no one to set it right after you. (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13)
Have dominion over the fish of the sea Rabbi Hanina said, If humanity merits it, they will have dominion; while if they do not merit it, they shall descend. (Midrash, Genesis Rabbah 8:12)
One generation goes and another generation comes; but the Earth remains forever. (Kohelet 1:4)
The World Belongs to God, All Creation is Holy
The Earth is the Lords and the fullness thereof. (Psalm 24)
Six years shall you sow your field, and six years shall you prune your vineyard, and gather in the produce thereof. But that seventh year shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest, a Sabbath unto the Lord, you shall neither sow your field, nor prune your vineyard. (Leviticus 25:3-4) Commentary: The Holy One, blessed be God, said to the children of Israel: Sow for six years and leave the land at rest for the seventh year, so that you may know that the land is Mine! (San. 39a)
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest but you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger; I the Eternal am your God. (Leviticus 19:9-20).
Two people were fighting over a piece of land. Each claimed ownership. To resolve their differences, they agreed to put the case before the rabbi. The rabbi listened but could not come to a decision. Finally he said, Since I cannot decide to whom this land belongs, let us ask the land. He put his ear to the ground, then straightened up. My friends, the land says that it belongs to neither of you but that you belong to it. (Jewish Folk Wisdom)
Our Rabbis said: Even things which you may regard as completely superfluous to the creation of the world, such as fleas, gnats and flies, even they are included in the creation of the world and the Holy One carries out the Divine purpose through everything even a snake, a scorpion, a gnat or a frog. (Genesis Rabbah 10:7)
Humankind was not created until the sixth day so that if pride should govern, it could be said: even the tiniest flea preceded you in creation (Leviticus Rabbah 14:1; Tosefta Sanhedrin 8:4)
Why did God appear to Moses in the lowly bush? To teach us that nothing in creation is without Gods holy presence, not even the commonest bush (Midrash)
It should not be believed that all the beings exist for the sake of the existence of humanity. On the contrary, all the other beings too have been intended for their own sakes, and not for the sake of something else. (Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, 456)
Yeah, Do not destroy anything is the first and most general call of God. If you should now raise your hand to play a childish game, to indulge in a senseless rage, wishing to destroy that which you should only use, wishing to exterminate that which you should only exploit, if you should regard the beings beneath you as objects without rights, not perceiving God who created them, and therefore desire that they feel the might of your presumptuous mood, instead of using them only as a means of wise human activity then Gods call proclaims to you, Do not destroy anything! Be a mentsch! (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Horeh #56)
Maintaining a Fruitful World
It is forbidden to live in a town that does not have a green garden. (Jerusalem Talmud, Kiddushin 4:12)
Once, while the sage, Honi, was walking along a road, he saw an old man planting a carob tree. Honi asked him: How many years will it take for this tree to give forth its fruit? The man answered that it would require 70 years. Honi asked: Are you so healthy a man that you expect to live that length of time and eat its fruit? The man answered: I found a fruitful world because my ancestors planted it for me. So, too, will I plant for my children. (Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 23a)
Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai said If you have a sapling in your hand, and someone says to you that the Messiah has come, stay and complete the planting, and then go out to greet the Messiah. (Avot de Rabbi Nathan, 31b)
Bal Tashchit (Do Not Waste)
When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are the trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city? (Deuteronomy 20:19)
Whoever breaks vessels, or tears garments, or destroys a building, or clogs a well, or does away with food in a destructive manner violates the negative mitzvah of bal tashchit, do not destroy or waste (Kiddushin 32a).
Rav Zutra taught: One who covers an old lamp or uncovers a naptha lamp [actions which burn extra fuel] transgresses the prohibition of wasteful destruction (Bal Tashchit). (Shabbat 67b)
R. Hisda also said: When one can eat barley bread but eats wheat bread, he violates Bal Tashchit. R. Papa said: When one can drink beer but drinks wine, he violates Bal Tashchit (this is a minority opinion.) (Shabbat 140b)
One should be trained not to be destructive. When you bury a person, do not waste garments by burying them in the grave. It is better to give them to the poor than to cast them to worms and moths. Anyone who buries the dead in an expensive garment violates the negative mitzvah of Bal Tashchit.(Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, Mourning 14:24)
The purpose of this mitzvah [bal tashchit] is to teach us to love that which is good and worthwhile and to cling to it, so that good becomes a part of us and we will avoid all that is evil and destructive. This is the way of the righteous and those who improve society, who love peace and rejoice in the good in people and bring them close to Torah: That nothing, not even a grain of mustard, should be lost to the world, that they should regret any loss or destruction that they see, and if possible they will prevent any destruction that they can. Not so are the wicked, who are like demons, who rejoice in destruction of the world and they are destroying themselves. (Sefer HaChinuch, #529)
A permanent threshing floor may not be made within 50 cubits from the city. None may make a permanent threshing floor within ones own domain unless her property extends 50 cubits in every direction, and it must be far enough away from the plantings and plowed land of a neighbor for [the chaff] to cause no damage. Carcasses, graves and tanneries may not remain within a space of 50 cubits from the town. A tannery may be set up only on the east side of the town. Rabbi Akiba says, [The tannery] may be set up on any side except the west. [ie: to avoid polluting the air that wafts into the town.] (Baba Batra 24b)
Tzaar Baalei Hayyim (The pain of living things): If, along the road, you chance upon a birds nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life. (Deuteronomy 22:6)
The Talmud tells the story of a farmer who was clearing stones from his field and throwing them onto a public thoroughfare. A pious one rebuked saying, Worthless one! Why are you clearing stones from land which is not yours and depositing them on property which is yours? The farmer scoffed at him for this strange reversal of the facts. In the course of time, the farmer had to sell his field, and as he was walking on the public road, he fell on those same stones he had thoughtlessly deposited there. He then understood the truth of the pious ones words: the damage he had wroght in the public domain was ultimately damage to his own property and well-being. (Tosefta, Baba Kama, 10:2; cf Baba Kama 50b. Paraphrased by Jonathan Helfand, Judaism and Environmental Ethics)
Master of the Universe, grant me the ability to be alone. May it be my custom to go outdoors each day among the trees and grass, among all growing things. And there may I be alone in prayer, to talk with my Creator, to express everything in my heart. And may all the foliage of the field awake at my coming, to send the power of their life into the words of my prayer, so that my prayer and speech are made whole through the spirit of all growing things. (Meditation of Reb Nahman of Bratslav)
Days pass and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles. Lord, fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing; let there be moments when Your Presence, like lightning, illumines the darkness in which we walk.
Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns unconsumed.
And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness, and exclaim in wonder:
How filled with awe is this place, and we did not know it! Blessed is the Eternal One, the holy God! (Gates of Prayer)