Tikkun Olam: A Jewish View on Recycling

A common misconception is that Judaism has no opinions on staying green, or even opposes the concept. I find this ironic, as Judaism vehemently supports saving the environment, especially recycling.

Tikkun olam, which literally means fixing the world, is the Jewish theory that supports recycling. It is first mentioned in the Mishna, part of the Talmud (Oral Torah), in the context of fixing the world from a social perspective. It is also mentioned three times every day in prayer, reminding the observant Jew of his or her obligation to repair the world on a daily basis. Part of the reparation every human being can do for the world is recycling.

The Bible and Oral tradition both support tikkun olam, even if they don’t mention it by name. The fact that God created the universe is a major reason that Jews need to protect it. There are many mitzvot (commandments) in Judaism that prohibit people from hurting themselves or mutilating their bodies because God formed them. The same concept applies to the world: we must protect it and fix it, especially through recycling, because it is God’s creation.

Judaism also has a prohibition called bal tash’hit, which prohibits wasteful practices. The basis for this mitzvah is in Deuteronomy 20:19-20, which forbids destroying fruit trees during war. While this is usually only applied to not wasting food, it also refers to not wasting anything. If God created it, the Holy One wanted it in this world, and it’s not up to us to wantonly destroy it if it can be reused. If you can recycle that plastic bottle or day-old newspaper, you are religiously obligated to do so.

There are many holidays that celebrate agriculture. When the Beit HaMikdash (Temple) was in existence, almost every holiday involved the giving of sacrifices, many of which involved grains of some sort. Tu B’Shevat, a holiday established in the Mishnah, celebrates trees. When it was first created in the third century CE, it marked the time of the harvest and tithe season. Today Jews celebrate Tu B’Shevat by planting trees and plants, especially in Israeli soil, and eat Israeli fruits. Shavuot, which is also known as the Harvest Holiday, commemorates the fact that Jews would bring the first fruits from their fields to the Beit HaMikdash at this time of year. Today, the Seven Species of fruit and grain associated with Israel are still linked to Shavuot. The fact that Judaism celebrates crop growing in many of its holidays show the importance of not wasting anything that comes from the ground. There are also many mitzvot related to the land, like the Sabbatical year every seventh year, the Jubilee year every fifty years, and pe’ah, leket, and shikhiha, laws relating to giving crops to the poor.

There are many Jewish organizations in existence whose missions are to fix the world, Jewish style. David Krantz of the Green Zionist Alliance (greenzionism.org) stated in a personal correspondence, “Recycling and other environmental activities are Jewish actions since many aspects of Jewish tradition implore us to protect the land, the plants and the animals with which we coexist on Earth. For example, we have a long-ignored biblical imperative to care for nature. In the book of Breishit (Genesis 2:15), the Torah commands us to serve and to guard the Earth. Because of the concept that no biblical commandment is any less worthy than another, an act such as recycling may be just as important for Jews to do as observing Shabbat, the weekly day of rest.”

Another organization, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), states on its website that it “has helped tens of thousands of Jews make a connection between Judaism and the environment. COEJL has put environmental protection on the agenda of the organized Jewish community and made the case to elected officials and decision-makers that protecting the environment is a moral and religious obligation.” Canfei Nesharim (a Hebrew term that means “on the wings of eagles,” referring to Exodus 19:4) wants to bridge the gap between Torah values and the environmental cause. Some other organizations are Hazon, Jewcology and related Teva Ivri (literally meaning “nature of a Jew”), Jewish Farm School, the Jewish National Fund, and the Teva Learning Center.

Recycling is truly an action supported by Judaism and the Jewish community. Three times a day in prayer, every Jew recites “We thankfully acknowledge…Your miracles which are with us daily, and for Your continual wonders and beneficences.” God gives us amazing blessings on a daily basis, doing miracles we don’t even notice. We have to give back to God and do our best to protect the world that our Creator has given us. Tikkun olam.

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