This Tuesday night, January 30th begins the Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shevat which is a yearly opportunity to review and reflect on some of Judaism’s teachings about the natural world. My focus for this year’s article is on what classical Jewish texts say about sustainability, how to properly use natural resources, and on enjoying the natural world.
Sustainability:According to an ancient Midrash, God instructed Adam: “See my works, how fine and excellent they are! All that I created, I created for you. Reflect on this, and do not corrupt or desolate my world; for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you.” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13) This is a very powerful statement. God is telling us that we are responsible for preserving His creations.
To help ensure the earth’s preservation, God gave the Jewish people many mitzvot (commandments) that pertain to nature and the environment. One of the 613 mitzvot in the Torah is not to destroy fruit trees in an offensive war (Deut. 20:19). The name of this mitzvah is Baal Tash’hit, which means “don’t destroy.” However, the rabbis in the Talmud taught that, in fact, all forms of wasting/destroying are a violation of the mitzvah of Baal Tash’hit and gave several examples such as: the breaking vessels in anger and causing a lamp to unnecessarily burn more oil. In other words, the mitzvot of Baal Tash’hit teaches us to conserve everything.
Another mitzvah is Shmita, which is the commandment to let the farm land in the Land of Israel lay fallow every seventh year. This is so the soil’s vitamins and minerals do not get depleted and can rejuvenate.
Proper Usage:In addition to preserving natural resources, Judaism also has much to say about how we should use or not use natural resources.
The Torah instructs us to maintain green belts around cities (Numbers 35:4), the prohibition against grafting diverse seeds and cross breeding animals (Leviticus 19:19), and Shabbat, which is a weekly rest for humans, animals and the natural world.
Rabbinic texts are also full of numerous laws pertaining to waste disposal and pollution, as well as the directive that if a person takes water from a well but does not use it all, he or she should not throw it out but find some productive use for it.
Additionally, God informed us: “Even those creatures that you deem superfluous in this world such as flies, fleas and gnats, even they were included in Creation, and God’s purpose is carried out through everything – even a snake, a scorpion, a gnat or a frog.” (Genesis Rabbah 10:7) Thus, everything in the natural world is purposeful.
Enjoyment: God wants us not just to preserve and properly utilize the natural world, but to also appreciate and enjoy it. Therefore, Jewish law requires a blessing to be said upon seeing wonders such as lightening, rainbows, shooting stars, the ocean and so on, as well over food, fragrant trees and flowers. In fact, it is a Jewish tradition to say 100 blessings per day, which means 100 times per day we are supposed to pause, appreciate and enjoy the natural world.
How to Celebrate:Some people celebrate Tu B’Shevat by having a formal Tu B’Shevat Seder that consists of going through a Tu B’Shevat Hagaddah and eating four different types of fruit and drinking four glasses of wine, each a different shade. Others eat each of the “Seven Species” that are inherent in the Land of Israel which are wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranate, olives, dates (Deuteronomy 8:8); while others physically plant a tree in Israel. If these are not possible to do this year, then one can always identify at least one thing in the natural world for which he or she is grateful and to verbally thank God for it. Happy Tu B’Shevat!