Jewish Environmental Teachings Useful for an “Environmental Shabbat”
This year, Earth Day (April 22) falls on a Saturday, providing an excellent opportunity to turn the day into an “Environmental Shabbat.” I am working with others to encourage rabbis all over the world to give sermons and/or classes on that day about Judaism’s splendid environmental teachings and how they can be applied to reduce current environmental threats.
Many relevant Jewish environmental teachings are presented below, but first here are some factors related to the planned Environmental Shabbat.
A list of supporting organizations is at the end of this article.
Among the many rabbis supporting this initiative are Nathan Lopes Cardozo, dean of the David Cardozo Institute and author of many Judaica books, including Jewish Law as Rebellion; Yitz Greenberg, President of the J.J. Greenberg Institute for the Advancement of Jewish Life; Yonatan Neril, founder and director of the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development and co-editor of Eco Bible, volumes 1 and 2; David Rosen, former Chief Rabbi of Ireland and now Director of International Inter-religious Affairs for the American Jewish Committee; Jonathan Wittenberg, leading UK Masorti rabbi; David Wolpe, leading US Conservative rabbi and author; and Shmuly Yanklowitz, founder and director of Uri l’Tzekek and Shamayim: Jewish Animal Advocacy, and author of many Judaica books.
Many activities suitable for an “Environmental Shabbat” are at the website of the Green Sabbath Project, https://www.greensabbathproject.net/sabbath-activities
Reinforcing this initiative, the Christian Vegetarian Association (CVA) is encouraging Christian clergy to give environmentally-related sermons and/or classes on the Sunday immediately after Earth Day.
Among Judaism’s many environmental teachings are the following:
1. “God took the man (Adam)and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and to guard/protect it” (Genesis 2:15). Based on this and other Torah verses, Jews are to be shomrei ha’adamah, “guardians of the earth, co-workers with God in protecting the environment.
2. In wartime, Jews are not to cut down fruit-bearing trees to build a battering ram to overcome an enemy fortification (Deuteronomy 20:19). The Jewish sages extended this prohibition into a general one (bal tashchit) against unnecessary destruction and wasteful use of resources.
3. Human beings were given dominion (Genesis 1:26). This verse has often been misinterpreted as giving people the right to freely exploit nature, but the Jewish sages interpreted it as mandating responsible stewardship, consistent with the two teachings above and other Torah teachings.
4. Shabbat is a reminder of creation, as it is said, “For in six days the Lord made the heaven and earth, and on the seventh day, He rested.” (Genesis 2:1.2) 4. When God created the world, he was able to say, “It is very good.” (Genesis 1:31) Everything was in harmony as God had planned, the waters were clean, the air was pure. But what must God think about the world today? What must God think when the rain he sends to nourish our crops is often acid rain due to the many chemicals poured into the air by our industries? When the abundance of species of plants and animals that God created are becoming extinct in tropical rain forests and other threatened habitats? When the fertile soil that God provided is rapidly being depleted and eroded? When the climatic conditions that God designed to meet our needs are threatened by climate change?
5. Earth Day falls shortly after Passover in 2023, and today’s environmental threats can be compared in many ways to the Biblical ten plagues, which are considered at the Passover seder:
- When we consider the threats to our land, water, and air, pesticides and other chemical pollutants, resource scarcities, threats to our climate, etc., we can easily enumerate ten modern “plagues.”
- The Egyptians were subjected to one plague at a time, while the modern plagues are threatening us all at once.
- The Israelites in Goshen were spared from the Biblical plagues, while every person on earth is imperiled by the modern plagues.
- Instead of an ancient Pharaoh’s heart being hardened, our hearts today have been hardened by the greed, materialism, and waste that are at the root of current environmental threats.
- God provided the Biblical plagues to free the Israelites, while today we must apply God’s teachings in order to save ourselves and our precious but imperiled planet.
6. There is a midrash (rabbinical teaching) that, “In the hour when the Holy one, blessed be He, created the first person, God showed him the trees in the Garden of Eden, and said to him: “See My works, how fine they are; Now all that I have created, I created for your benefit. Think upon this and do not corrupt and destroy My world, For if you destroy it, there is no one to restore it after you” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:28).
For many years, people must have wondered: is it really possible that the world could be destroyed? Unfortunately, it is possible today due to increasing threats from climate change. Glaciers, polar icecaps, and permafrost are rapidly melting and there has been a very significant increase in the frequency and severity of heatwaves, droughts, wildfires, storms, floods, and other climate-related events. In addition, climate experts are increasingly warning that the world may reach an irreversible tipping point when climate spins out of control with disastrous consequences.
Hence, it is essential that the Jewish teachings discussed above be applied in efforts to shift our imperiled planet onto a sustainable path. Making Earth Day 2023 an Environmental Shabbat, with sermons, classes, environmentally-conscious meals, and other environmentally-related activities can be an important step toward moving our imperiled planet onto a sustainable path and revitalizing Judaism.
There is no planet B.
List (in formation) of Jewish Organizations Supporting the Initiative to Make Earth Day in 2023 an “Environmental Shabbat”
Aytzim: Ecological Judaism, Parent organization of: EcoJews, Green
Zionist Alliance, Jewcology.org, Jews of the Earth, Shomrei Breishit:
Rabbis and Cantors for the Earth (aytzim.org)
Christian Vegetarian Association. (ChristianVeg.org)
Concern for Helping Animals in Israel (chai.org.il)
Hakol Chai (chai.org.il)
Green Zionist Alliance
Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development (interfaithsustain.com)
International Jewish Vegetarian Society (Jerusalem)
Jewish Vegetarian Society of the UK. (jvs.org.uk)
Jews of the Earth
The Plant-Based Thrive and Inspire Community – Inspiring Hopeful Curiosity for a new lifestyle. weDIDit.Health
Own Your Judaism (ownyourjudaism.org)
Shamayim: Jewish Animal Advocacy (shamayim.us )
Shomrei Breishit: Rabbis and Cantors for the Earth (aytzim.org)