Care for the Environment – Judaism

Menorah - symbol of JudaismAs part of the Interfaith Call to Action auspiced by United Nations Environment Program and other multifaith organisations, we will, each month, present the view of one religion on the Environment and Care for the Environment. Religions to be covered include Indigenous Traditions, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Zoroastrianism, the Bahá’í Faith, Hinduism, the Jain Religion, Buddhism, the Sikh Religion, Confucianism, Daoism, Shinto, and in summary, Environmental Ethics: Points of Agreement among the World’s Religions. This month, Care for the Environment features the teachings of Judaism.


The festivals of the Jewish religion do call upon us to stand before God, in awe at his majesty, trembling before His judgements, but that is not the dominant mood of the Jewish faith. The festivals celebrate, in joy, the cycle of the season of nature. The rabbis even insisted that: “He who has denied himself any one of the rightful joys of this world is a sinner” (Baba Kama 91b). The highest form of obedience to God’s commandments is to do them not in mere acceptance but in the nature of union with Him. In such a joyous encounter between man and God, the very rightness of the world is affirmed.

The encounter of God and man in nature is thus conceived in Judaism as a seamless web with man as the leader, and custodian of the natural world. Even in the many centuries when Jews were most involved in their own most immediate dangers and destiny, this universalist concern has never withered. …Now, when the whole world is in peril, when the environment is in danger of being poisoned, and various species, both plant and animal, are becoming extinct, it is our Jewish responsibility to put the defence of the whole of nature at the very centre of our concern … Man was given dominion over nature, but he was commanded to behave towards the rest of creation with justice and compassion. Man lives, always, in tension between his power and the limits set by conscience. — The Jewish Declaration on Nature: Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, Vice President, World Jewish Congress, Assisi 1986.


Jewish shepherd boy
Photo by Kevin Bubriski.

God creates Earth and all who live
on it, and sees that it is Good

When God was about to create heaven and earth, the earth was a chaos, unformed, and on the chaotic waters’ face there was darkness. Then God’s spirit glided over the face of the waters, and God said, “Let there be light!” – and there was light. And when God saw how good the light was, God divided the light from the darkness …

God then said, “Let the waters beneath the sky be collected in one place, so that the dry ground may be seen!” – and so it was. And God called the dry ground Earth, and called the collected waters Seas. And when God saw how good it was, God said, “Let the earth grow vegetation, seed-bearing plants; fruit trees on the earth that bear fruit, each true to its type, with its seed in it!” – and so it was … And God saw how good it was.

God then said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let the birds fly over the earth, across the face of the expanse of the sky!” God then formed the great sea monsters, and every living creature that creeps, with which the waters swarm, all true to their types, and every winged bird, each true to its type; and God saw how good it was. God then blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the waters of the seas, and let the birds multiply in the earth!” …

God then said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every type: domestic animals and creeping things and wild animals, each true to its type!” – and so it was … and God saw how good it was.

God created the human beings in [the divine] image, creating [them] in the image of God, creating them male and female. God then blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and tame it; hold sway over the fish of the sea and the birds of the sky, and over every animal that creeps on earth” … God then surveyed all that [God] had made and look – it was very good!

Humans are made from the Dust of the Earth

Then God Eternal fashioned the man [adam] – dust from the soil [adamah] – and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, so that the man became a living being … So God Eternal took the man, him in the Garden of Eden to work it and keep it. Genesis 1:1-5, 9-12, 20-21, 24-26, 28, 31, and 2.7, and 15.

God makes a Covenant with all Creatures

God then said to Noah and his sons who were with him, “As for Me, I am going to establish My covenant with you, and your descendants after you, and with every living being in your care — the birds, the beasts, and all the land animals in your care — all who have gone out of the ark, all Earth’s animals.” Genesis 9.8-10.

The Sabbatical Year –
a Sabbath for the Land

Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, a Sabbath of the Eternal … it shall be a year of complete rest for the land. Leviticus 25.3-5. Selections from the Torah are from Gunther Plaut, The Torah, A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition.

Humans Do Not Own Earth
The earth is God Eternal’s and all that it holds. Psalm 24.1


Photo by Cam Adams.

All of Creation Praises God

Let the sea and all within it thunder.
The world and its inhabitants,
Let the rivers clap their hands,
The mountains sing joyously together
At the presence of the Eternal…
Psalm 98.7-9

Praise God, sun and moon,
praise God, all bright stars,
Praise God, highest heavens,
and you waters that are above the heavens.
Let them praise the name of the Eternal,
for it was God that commended that they be created.
God made them endure forever,
establishing an order that shall never change.
Praise God, O you who are on earth.
all sea monsters and ocean depths,
fire and hail, snow and smoke,
storm wind that executes God’s commands,
all mountains and hills,
all fruit trees and cedars,
all wild and tamed beasts,
creeping things and winged beasts.
Psalm 148.3-10.
Selections from the Psalms are from Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures: A New Translation of the Holy Scriptures according to the Traditional Hebrew Text.

Vows for the Earth

Judaism teaches that the whole world is God’s house and the wind is ruach elohim, God’s breath. It teaches that the meaning of goodness derives from the water and earth and all the creatures. It teaches that the earth is the ground of our being and that how we live reverberates within it.
magen dawoo in a greenhouse
A greenhouse in the Arava Desert, Israel. -Photograph by Nghia Tru’o’ng. Courtesy of
It provides us with a Sabbath day to stop—to refrain from working and using the land, to remember that God is master of the universe, not we. And it provides the land with a Sabbath year—a year of release when no hand works the land and the land enjoys complete rest.

Judaism teaches that we are indelibly connected to the land and that when we behave in accord with God’s law, the rain falls in its season and a fecund, verdant earth bears fruit in abundance. And if we neglect the law, the rains stop, the land dries up and all creatures suffer famine, drought, and every disaster. It teaches that we are all responsible for each other, and that the land is a gift from God and the gift is conditional. If we do not care for the gift, we lose the gift.

I vow to listen for the voice of the land and the wind, and to pray and plant, and write and teach that the preservation of our beautiful world is our greatest religious imperative. — Rabbi Ellen Bernstein Interfaith Service, Cathedral of St. John the Divine, following the People’s Climate March, September 21, 2014.

Do Not Destroy

Clearcut at Arch Cape, Oregon.
Clearcut at Arch Cape, Oregon. Photo by Sam Beebe. Courtesy of
At the culmination of Creation, the Holy One led the human creature through the Garden of Eden and said, “Enjoy the beauty and glory of the universe. Take heed not to corrupt or destroy My world. For if you corrupt it, there is no one to make it rights after you.” Ecclesiastes Rabba 7.13

Jewish tradition teaches Bal Tashchit — do not destroy or waste. This commandment has become central to Jewish environmental ethics.

When in your war against a city you have to besiege it for 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

A basic principle in rabbinic interpretation is to move from a specific and narrow application — here, the exceptional conditions of war — to a much broader and more inclusive one. Thus “do not destroy” means that we must never destroy needlessly and should not waste Earth’s precious resources.


Celebrating Simchat
Celebrating Simchat Torah, at the completion of the annual Torah reading cycle. Photo by meuniard /


from the Nishmat…

The breath of all that lives praises You, our God,
The force that that drives all flesh exalts you, our Sovereign, always.
Transcending space and time, You are God …
God of all creatures, endlessly extolled,
You guide the world with kindness, its creatures with compassion.

Could song fill our mouth as water fills the sea
And could joy flood our tongue like countless waves
Could our lips utter praise as limitless as the sky
And could our eyes match the splendour of the sun
Could we soar with arms like eagle’s wings
And run with gentle grace, as the swiftest deer,

Never could we fully state our gratitude
For one ten-thousandth of the lasting love

Which is your precious blessing, dearest God,
Granted to our ancestors and to us.
— Siddur Sim Shalom: A Prayerbook for Shabbat, Festivals, and Weekdays, p. 335.

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
grasses, among all growing things, there to be alone and enter into
prayer, There may I express all that is in my heart, talking with You,
to Whom I belong. And may all grasses, trees, and plants awake
at my coming. Send the power of their life into my prayer, making
whole my heart and my speech through the life and spirit of growing
— Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (1772-1810), quoted in Bernstein, E. and D. Fink, This Sacred Earth: Religion, Nature, Environment, p. 459.

Blessings through the day

Before eating bread: Blessed are You, Eternal our God,
Sovereign of the universe, who brings forth bread from the

Before eating fruit: Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Sovereign
of the universe, who creates the fruit of the tree.

Upon smelling the fragrance of shrubs and trees: Blessed
are You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the universe, who
creates fragrant trees.

Upon smelling the fragrance of plants and herbs: Blessed
are You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the universe, who
creates fragrant plants.

Upon smelling fragrant fruit: Blessed are You, Eternal our
God, Sovereign of the universe, who gives a pleasant fragrance
to fruits.

Upon seeing trees or creatures of unusual beauty: Blessed
are You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the universe, who
has such beauty in the world.

Upon hearing thunder: Blessed are You, Eternal our God,
Sovereign of the universe, whose might and power fill the
entire world.

Upon seeing lightning, shooting stars, mountains, or a
sunrise: Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the
universe, Source of creation.

Upon seeing a rainbow: Blessed are You, Eternal our God,
Sovereign of the universe, who remembers the covenant
and is faithful to all promises.
— Ronald H. Isaacs, Every Person’s Guide to Jewish Prayer, pp. 83-90.


There can be no doubt to any enlightened or thoughtful person that the “dominion” mentioned in the Bible in the phrase “and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creeps upon the earth,” is not the dominion of a tyrant who deals harshly with his people and servants in order to achieve his own personal desires and whims. It would be unthinkable to legislate so repugnant a subjugation and have it forever engraved upon the word of God, who is good to all and whose mercy extends to all. He has created, as is written, “The earth is founded on mercy.” —Rabbi Avraham Yitzak HaKohen Kook (First Chief Rabbi of Palestine), Psalm 89.3: “Hazon ha Tzimhonut v’haShalom (A Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace),” A kim baNegev II in Lahai Ro’I, p. 207.

Tu B’shvat—a day for Trees
The 15th day of the lunar month of Shevat, coming in mid-January to mid-February, is known as the New Year of the Trees. It is a harbinger of spring, a time to be thankful for the land, to plant trees, and to be engaged in environmental projects. It has become a holiday for reflection on humanity’s place in the natural world and remembering teachings to protect it. Many celebrate Tu B’shvat with a seder or festive meal, with multiple kinds of fruit, fashioned after the custom of the 16th century mystics in Safed, Israel.

plantingFinish your Planting

If you are in the midst of planting and word reaches you that the Messiah has arrived, do not interrupt your work. First finish your planting, and only then go out to welcome the Messiah. — Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai, The Fathers according to Rabbi Nathan, B31.

In the realm of Nature there is nothing purposeless, trivial, or unnecessary. — Maimonides (1135-1204), from The Guide of the Perplexed, M. Friedlander, tr. Vol. 3, 3.25, p. 122.

Elijah’s Covenant: A Rabbinic Call for Action on Climate Change

On January 2, 2020, five hundred rabbis, cantors, and other Jewish leaders from around the world signed “Elijah’s Covenant Between the Generations to Heal Our Endangered Earth,” a letter calling for action on climate change, including actions protecting the environment, supporting political change, and welcoming refugees displaced by disasters. Organized by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, founder and director of the Shalom Center, the full text and list of signatories is available at The letter says, in part:

For the first time in the history of Humanity, we are actually moving toward the burning and devastation of the web of life on Earth by human action — the unremitting use of fossil fuels. Our children and grandchildren face deep misery and death unless we act. They have turned their hearts toward us. Our hearts, our minds, our arms and legs, are not yet fully turned toward them…

Our sacred task requires affirming not only the biological ecosystem but also a cultural/ social ecosystem — a modern word for how the diverse Images of God become ECHAD (One). Jews, Indigenous Nations, Christians, Muslims, Unitarians, Buddhists, Hindus, and many others — each community must bring its own unique wisdom to join, in the Name of the ONE Who is the Interbreathing Spirit of all life. Whose universal Breathing is the “nameless name,” the “still small voice” that supports and suffuses all the many diverse Names of God in many cultures and communities. That Interbreathing Spirit supports and suffuses all life on Planet Earth.


Shield featuring the Menorah, the symbol of Israel. Photo by Francoise Foliot. Israel National Museum.

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