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Parshat Bereishit “To work and to guard”: Where is the ecological halakhic responsa?

Tishrei 5783 | October 2022

This week we begin the Torah with Bereishit, God’s creation of the world. For centuries Jewish scholars have delved into the enigmatic text to understand the multitudes of truth it contains. Fortunately, the wisdom of the Torah is accessible on many levels, and even a novice student should come out of this week’s Torah reading with a deep appreciation of the balance, harmony, and goodness of God’s creation.

The word ra, “evil” does not appear until after the creation of humans.

In 1967 the American historian Lynn White Jr. claimed that the anthropocentric world view Christianity inherited from Judaism and the Hebrew bible’s story of creation was to blame for the ever-worsening ecological crisis. Similar claims echoed in reputable journals, newspapers, and books. While this understanding of our Torah (and possibly Christian theology) should not simply be accepted, the claim that a religious world view impacts the natural world in profound ways is one that should not be ignored.

The Torah tells us that the Creator blessed male and female to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it; exert dominion over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the air and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” (Bereishit 1:28) At first glance this verse may seem to provide humanity with a Divine imperative to control and subjugate creation, but many Jewish scholars assert that such a reading disregards both the immediate and greater biblical context, as well as generations of rabbinic scholarship, that leave no room for such an interpretation.

Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm dedicated several sermons and writings to Judaism’s view of ecology; he categorically rejects White’s claim about the Torah’s legacy and overwhelmingly demonstrates that the Torah does not give humankind free rein over creation but rather demands that we respect and sustain God’s creations.[i] Several of his many examples are found in this week’s parsha, starting with the verse that follows the one above where God only permits people to eat fruits and vegetables. Eating animal flesh is forbidden until after the flood, and once it is allowed it comes with strict limitations. (Bereishit 9:3-7)

Adam is given power, and that power comes with responsibility and limitations – he is placed in the Garden of Eden “to work and safeguard it.” Chief Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks teaches:

The two Hebrew verbs used here are significant. The first– le’ovdah—literally means “to serve it.” The human being is thus both master and servant of nature. The second—leshomrah--means “to guard it.” This is the verb used in later biblical legislation to describe the responsibilities of a guardian of property that belongs to someone else. This guardian must exercise vigilance while protecting, and is personally liable for losses that occur through negligence. This is perhaps the best short definition of humanity’s responsibility for nature as the Bible conceives it.[ii]

Both Bereishit and Noach relate the profound effect human action has on the natural environment. The consequence of Adam’s sin as well as his son Cain’s is a curse that diminishes the original harmony between man and nature, “by the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread” and “when you till the ground it will no longer yield it’s strength for you…” By Noach’s time God sent an extreme weather event to wash away the damage after “the earth had become corrupted (shachet)” (6:11) Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch explains that shachet “is the conception of corruption, not destruction. It is the overthrow of a good condition, and the impeding of progress, and the changing into the opposite of anything which was meant to thrive and prosper…”[iii] While this ruin is mainly the result of spiritual and moral corruption, if the Torah teaches that humanity’s spiritual misdeeds can scar the physical world, surely our physical abuse of this world can do the same.

This idea is reflected by the midrash in Kohelet Rabba.(7:13) After showing him the trees in the Garden of Eden, God told Adam “… Everything I created I created for you, focus so that you do not ruin and destroy My world, for if you ruin it there is no one to repair it after you…”

The duty to safeguard the natural world has been explored by Jewish scholars throughout the generations, but none of the sources above have been used to codify this as a Torah commandment or present a halakhically imperative approach on how to do so.

The most explicit ecological Torah commandment is that of Baal Tashchit – the prohibition against cutting down fruit trees during a siege. (Devarim 20:19-20) Rambam explains that the prohibition is not limited to fruit trees during war, but is an example of an overarching Torah level prohibition against willful, useless destruction of anything natural or manmade.[iv] As Rabbenu Bechaye explains, “An intelligent and wise nation is not in the habit of destroying something that is worthwhile for no beneficial reason…”[v]

Indeed, Baal Tashchit has been used as a halakhic source to prohibit food waste, energy waste, diverting irrigation, and, more recently, a possible source for an imperative to recycle.[vi] Yet there are also halakhic opinions that limit Baal Tashchit to cases where there is no benefit, and allow for the destruction of fruit trees when necessary, such as cases where the tree is a nuisance or a significant expense.[vii] Such is the way of halakha, weighing conflicting mitzvot, traditions, values, and interests to apply the Torah to our lives.

So why is there not more halakhic ecological discussion? Where is the responsa on if I should buy more dishes to avoid using disposable when I have guests, or what percentage of my budget I should dedicate to buying a fuel-efficient car, or how much more I should spend to buy clothes from sustainable materials or food from environmentally responsible sources? Where are the Jewish business owners, manufacturers, engineers, and scientists questioning conflicts between technological developments, financial gain, and ecological conservation?

Perhaps the scarcity of ecological halakhot does not mean that ecological responsibility is not a Torah value, but rather halakhic discussion is not the proper venue to apply those values. Rabbi Lamm explains that it is presumptuous and dangerous to claim clear halakhic answers to all of society’s issues. Halakha is not the forum to set legally binding precedent for complex and constantly-shifting realities, particularly when experts on the subject don’t agree on the best course of action. But while there may not be room for official halakhic answers, the religious personality must grapple with the problems and make their own personal decisions based on Jewish tradition, current knowledge, and their experience.

Halakha addresses both spiritual (non-moral) and moral issues, but it does not cover most of the decisions we make in a day. This does not mean that all these decisions are unrelated to our Judaism. According to Ramban many would be included in the commandment to be holy – “kedoshim tehiyu.” (Vayikra 19:2) Ramban explains that one may meticulously observe halakha and still be a “naval b’reshut haTorah,” a degenerate within the bounds of Torah. As Rabbi Lamm explains:

“Halakha touches every area of life, and offers its judgments in an attempt to sanctify life by making man God-conscious. However, it does not presume to cover all of life and every aspect of it.”[viii]

The modern world is complex. There are clearly times when the progress of humankind in one area will come at the expense of another area. Decisions are made based on available knowledge and projections, new data comes to light, expert opinions shift… There are times where our Torah values will direct us to choose one behavior in one circumstance and the opposite in another. For example, we may reject single use plastics at our Shabbat table but prize them in a field hospital, thanking God for giving man the wisdom to invent them. Traditional Jewish sources over millennia confirm time and again that we are tasked to protect this world and the paucity of specific halakhic discussion does not preclude a Torah imperative to safeguard God’s good creation. A Torah observant Jew is one who keeps these values in mind as they weigh their options and make their choices.

“… modern technological man, apparently, is clever enough to subdue nature, and stupid enough to wreck it. There is no doubt that Judaism fully supports the endeavors to restore the balance of nature along with man’s respect for it… to have dominion does not mean to destroy. We were meant to subdue nature, but we are also responsible for it… halakha… demands of us a sense of responsibility before all creativity, and a special sense of reverence before God’s work.”[ix]

Special thank you to the resources and lessons provided by Jewish Eco Seminars

[i]  “Ecology in Jewish Law and Theology” in Faith and Doubt, by Rabbi Norman Lamm, 2006, KTAV Publishing House: Jersey City


[iii] Commentary to Genesis 6:11, in The Pentateuch: vol. 1: Genesis, Rendered into English by Isaac Levy from the original German, Judaica Press, Gateshead, England, 1989 p. 138-139

[iv] Hilchot Melachim 6:8-10, according to Minchat Chinuch  529. Others understand that the expansion of Baal Tashchit is rabbinic.

[v] Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch in Horeb, sections 397,398 [Lo tashchit], ‘do not destroy’, is] “the most comprehensive warning to human beings not to misuse the position which Gd has given them as masters of the worlds and its matter to capricious, passionate, or merely thoughtless wasteful destruction of anything on earth…If you should regard the beings beneath you as objects without rights, not perceiving Gd Who created them, and therefore desire that they feel the might of your presumptuous mood, instead of using them only as the means of wise human activity—then Gd’s call proclaims to you, “Do not destroy anything!” (bang) Be a mensch! Only if you use the things around you for wise human purposes, sanctified by the word of My teaching, only then are you a mensch and have the right over them which I have given you as a human…However, if you destroy, if you ruin, at that moment you are not a human…and have no right to the things around you. I lent them to you for wise use only; never forget that I lent them to you. As soon as you use them unwisely, be it the greatest or the smallest, you commit treachery against my world, you commit murder and robbery against my property, you sin against Me!” …In truth, there is no one nearer to idolatry than one who can disregard the fact that all things are the creatures and property of Gd, and who then presumes to have the right, because he has the might, to destroy them according to a presumptuous act of will. Yes, that one is already serving the most powerful idols—anger, pride, and above all ego, which in its passion regards itself as the master of things.”

[vi] Shulchan Aruch, OC 170:22, TB Shabbat 67b prohibits covering an oil lamp in a way that it burns inefficiently, Sifrei Shoftim 203, see discussion in Rabbi Yosef Bechhofer, Techumin Vol. 16 pg. 296

[vii] TB Bava Kama 91b, Chachmat Adam 68:7, Taz YD 116:6

[viii] Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, “How relevant should Halakhah be?” Parshat Kedoshim May 8, 1971

[ix] Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, “Ecology & the Bible”, Shabbat Ki Tisa, 1970

Rabbanit Debbie Zimmerman

Debbie Zimmerman graduated from the first cohort of Hilkhata – Matan’s Advanced Halakhic Institute and is a Halakhic Responder. She is a multi-disciplinary Jewish educator, with over a decade of experience in adolescent and adult education. After completing a BA in Social Work, Debbie studied Tanakh in the Master’s Program for Bible in Matan and Talmud in Beit Morasha.