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Jewish Law and the Environment

Jewish Law and the Environment

Judaism is replete with highly-refined environmental consciousness.

by Rabbi Barry Freundel

Judaism sees itself as a religion of laws. As such the legal framework of Judaism was meant to structure and direct one's life experiences and perceptions of the world giving them meaning, spirituality, and sanctity.

Against that background, it is interesting to note how pervasive environmental legislation is in Jewish law with the consequence that one who follows halacha to the fullest, would, if only from repeated exposure, develop a highly refined environmental consciousness.

Any discussion of Jewish law and the environment must begin with the following classical biblical selection: 

When you shall besiege a city a long time, and wage war to capture it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against fruit trees... Only the trees which you know are not trees for food, you may destroy and cut them down to build siege machinery against the city waging war with you (Deut. 20:19-20).

Ancient wars were fought using different raw materials than those we use today. For us rubber, plastic, and various metals are the crucial elements. In ancient times it was wood. Fuel, siege engines, arrows and spears, all needed this critical element to function. While not all types of wood were good for all purposes, all wood could be helpful to the war effort in some ways. War is, undeniably, a time of great need, and great danger. Nonetheless, biblical law prohibits use of wood from fruit trees even under battlefield conditions.

Maimonides includes a large number of destructive activities under this prohibitive rubric. 

This prohibition does not apply to trees only. Rather, anyone who breaks utensils, tears garments, destroys buildings, stops up a stream, or ruins food with destructive intent transgresses the command "Do not destroy" (Laws of Kings 6:10).

Maimonides goes even further in the continuation of this section. Not only are direct acts of wanton destruction prohibited, but even indirect acts such as cutting off water sources necessary for the trees to grow are also precluded. Similarly, when normal human activity does require some destruction of natural resources, decisions must be made in favor of methods that involve less rather than greater destruction (i.e., destroy the tree that does not bear fruit before the one that does bear fruit).

Noise Pollution

Over time this prohibition (now colloquially known as "Bal Tashchit" from the Aramaic translation of the command "You shall not destroy"), came to refer to any wasteful or destructive act. All things, even inanimate objects, must be treated with respect and not abused or wasted. Certainly all living things must receive at least that much respect as well.

Alongside the negative -- you shall not destroy -- is the positive -- you shall maintain, leading to an entire series of laws that are designed to maintain and improve the general environmental quality of life.

Many of the relevant sources appear in the Talmudic Tractate Baba Batra. This deals, generally, with civil law and monetary matters. Maintaining an environmentally sound quality of life is an imperative, and damaging that quality of life is treated in Jewish law as a tort -- a physical injury against one's neighbor.

The Talmud states: 

If someone desires to open a shop in a courtyard, his neighbor may prevent him on the grounds that he will not be able to sleep through the noise of people coming and going (Baba Batra 20b).  

While accommodation must be made, even in residential areas, to allow people to make a living -- there are limits. Some manufacturing may be allowed, but the noise pollution of crowds and customers cannot be permitted to disturb the peace. Noise, which can penetrate walls and doors, is both an act of pollution and an invasion of privacy.

Certain professions, by the very nature of their functioning, create noise and need to be controlled. By the same token these and other professions may negatively impact the environment in other ways, such as damaging surrounding trees and fields. This too, is reason enough to set limits on their functioning. 

A pigeon cote must be kept 50 cubits from a town. One may not erect a pigeon cote on his own estate unless there is a clear space of 50 cubits all round (Baba Batra 23a). 

The reason for the distance requirement is generally understood to be the need to prevent the birds from damaging neighboring crops, though separation from noise may also be a factor. Optimum distance would prevent all damage. A grandfather clause was allowed, however, in pre-existing situations. Even here enough distance must be maintained so that damage will be small and rare.

The Talmud continues: 

A threshing-floor must be kept 50 cubits from a town. A man should not fix a threshing-floor on his own estate unless there is a clear space all round of 50 cubits. He must keep it away from the plantation of his neighbor and his plowed fallow field a sufficient distance to prevent damage being caused (Baba Batra 23a)

The Talmud explains that a threshing-floor by its nature produces chaff, a potentially airborne dust particle and pollutant. The threshing-floor must be kept away from the fields, because the dust goes and penetrates into them and dries them up.

Jewish law, long before the collective raising of our contemporary consciousness to the importance of these issues, understood the potential harmful effects of industrial air pollution and acted to mitigate those effects.

To summarize to this point, Jewish law out of ecological concerns insisted that

  • one not open a shop in a courtyard if the noise pollution of customers will disturb his neighbor's sleep
  • one must put a pigeon cote at least 50 cubits from town so that the scavenging birds not damage the town's vegetable gardens
  • threshing floors must also be kept at this distance to prevent the chaff from creating an air pollution problem for the city 

Finally, Jewish law understood that, while industry is given some room to function, it must be located where it will be the least damaging to the environment. For this reason, carrion, graves and tanneries also have the 50-cubit distance requirement because of the odors they produce. In the latter case there may also be a requirement that the tannery be placed on the side of the city away from or directly opposite the direction of the prevailing winds in that region.

Easing of Rights

Environmental nuisances find their way into another important discussion in Jewish law. Most nuisances, if implemented for someone's benefit and tolerated at that time by his neighbors, cannot subsequently be removed because of the latter's complaints. For example, in many American jurisdictions if I have walked across my neighbors lawn for more than a year to get to work, that passage can no longer be prevented by my neighbor. This is called an easement in American law. A similar concept exists in Jewish law. However, this is not true in all cases. Maimonides' concludes: 

With respect to any of the prescribed distances mentioned in the preceding chapters, if one does not keep the proper distance and the other sees it and is silent, the latter thereby waives his right to challenge the first and cannot thereafter change his mind and compel him to withdraw to the proper distance. 

This applies if it is apparent that he has waived his right, as when he sees the other doing it alongside his property without leaving the required distance and is silent and does not resent it.

Again we see the association between privacy and environmental regulation. Further, smoke, the odor of a privy, dust and vibration are assumed to be such "great" intrusions into a human being's personal ecology that no one can ever be assumed to have truly and completely accepted their presence. Therefore, if one engages in work that produces such pollution, he can protect himself only by purchasing rights to produce these nuisances from those affected. This, too, serves to limit and control the production of such pollutants and is conceptually similar to an American plan (that was never implemented) to regulate the environment through a system of violation points and corresponding taxation.

Public Parks

Even simple environmental amenities that improve the quality of life are subject to halachic concern. In Torah law, cities in Israel are to be surrounded by a migrash, an area of approximately 2,000 feet left for public enjoyment in to which nothing may intrude. These domains were park-like areas kept free of cultivation so that inhabitants could enjoy visiting these places.

These park areas must be kept free of cultivation.

Also, trees were to be kept 50-100 feet away from the city wall (depending on the species of tree and the amount of leaves) so that people would get the full benefit of these areas. In this way, cool breezes that might head in the direction of the city would be allowed to reach the city streets and amenity areas and not be stopped by the trees.

Further, according to the Sages, this migrash may not be turned into a field, as it destroys the beauty of the city. To maintain balance, a field may not be made into a migrash as it will diminish the crops. So, too, a migrash cannot be made into a city because that too will destroy the city's beauty, while making a migrash out of the city is prohibited as it destroys the place where people live. Again a balance is struck between environmental and other needs. In our day, national and public parks and wilderness areas serve similar needs.

Keeping the Capital Clean

An interesting law promoting positive development of the environment in the Land of Israel comes from the case of a farmer whose olive trees are swept away and are then found rooted in another farmer's field.

Though the Talmudic discussion begins with the question of who owns what with regard to the trees and the fruit that they bear in their new location, it ends with the conclusion that the trees are not to be returned to their original location. This decision emerges from a concern that Israel be well cultivated and settled. Presumably the new owner will farm his serendipitously acquired trees while the original farmer will in all likelihood, replace his loss. In this way two sets of trees will grow in the land where only one set had existed before.

Other special laws apply to preserve the unique environment of Jerusalem, Judaism's spiritual center. 

No dunghills should be made there... no kilns should be kept there (Baba Kama 82b). 

Accumulated garbage had to be dealt with and removed from Jerusalem on the day that it was created. The famous Dung Gate in the Old City walls of Jerusalem in near proximity to the Temple Mount is architectural testimony to Jewish compliance with this ordinance.

Kilns produce two things: pottery and smoke. In Jerusalem, the former is not worth the price of the latter. This concern is so deep-seated that leniency in some kashrut laws is permitted within a 15-mile radius of Jerusalem to help preserve its environment. (Talmud - Chagiga 25b)

Even contemporary rituals are impacted by concerns such as these. Traditionally one says, "may it wear out and you acquire another one" to someone wearing a new garment. This is, however, not said for leather shoes as an animal must be killed for the wish to come true. So, too, one who slaughters for the first time, unlike one who performs other ritually significant acts for the initial time, does not say "She'hecheyanu" (the blessing recited when one reaches or achieves an important milestone in one's life), since an animal must be killed in the process.

It is this type of spiritual and environmental sensitivity that one can and should develop through living a halachic lifestyle. If one's professional, ritual and military lives are ecologically controlled, if one's city is environmentally planned, if one is precluded from engaging in wanton destruction, if one is asked to develop an environmental sense of privacy, if one, in the course of study frequently encounters ecological themes, then some environmental consciousness must develop. This should then influence all of one's activities.

Published: January 27, 2007

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Visitor Comments: 15

(15) Etel Yon, January 17, 2011 11:01 PM

Where is the Rabbinic leadership??

Excellent article. One question? Where is the Rabbinic leadership? Why aren;t these topics taught in yeshivas???

(14) Meirav, February 5, 2009 1:43 AM

excellent resource

I am surfing on line to find extraordinary information about Tu-B'shvat I would otherwise not find and this has given me exactly what I was looking for - more in depth, adult information. Thank you - Yishar Koach!

(13) Yaacov, August 16, 2008 5:33 PM

World took a bit long?

You know what's very ironic, while Torah stated that mankind should protect and conserve the environment as one of the biggest priorities, millenniums ago, humanity only started to think about conserving the environment from the end of the last century to our days. It's not the only aspect where Torah is miles ahead of how most countries now think.

(12) Leslie, January 31, 2008 6:38 AM

redefine recycling

If we can redefine recycling, much could be possible. Now, I have not been raised in a Jewish home and am just beginning to become familiar with the Talmud and all the Hebrew terms you all are already comfortable with, so I can only speak about what I observe in the Torah in my English translation. What I see, though, is that if people were willing to follow many of those core guidelines of washing, etc. with plastic containers, there would be much more precedence for "wearing out" materials before recycling them. (Yes, I know, they break, not wear out, but isn't the same true of clay pots?) The very notion of "disposable" seems incongruent with the precepts I see there. What was done with broken vessels?

I confess that I am ignorant about which types of products can or cannot be currently recycled, but shouldn't we be focusing on new techniques to recycle products that currently are thrown away because there is no precedence for this rather than crying out about where to put the landfills?

When things were made of metal, they were melted down, purified, and recast. When things were made of wood, they were consumed, and the ash itself can be used in many ways. What can be POSSIBLE with plastic? (Not, "what can we do so far.")

If plastic is made, ultimately, from the raw material of oil, then it, too, is a provision from the earth itself, created by man with the intelligence G-d gave us? I see no precedence for G-d giving us resources that we cannot be held responsible for using wisely. I see no examples of creating something intrinsically harmful to use. Men must CHOOSE to use the earth conscientiously.

G-d did not command us not to kill animals for their hides. In fact, he provided it in Genesis. Leather was a gift to us, for it has many uses. So it is, in my mind, with crude oil. Alternatives to using oil are not as much the answer as not being wasteful in its use.

Surely there is more for us to learn here, for G-d is not a creator of waste, but rather a giver of wisdom in eliminating it.

(11) Paulette, January 26, 2008 11:12 AM

Makes me proud

I work as a professional environmental planner, and I'm familiar with environmental law in the U.S. and in California. I must say that I'm quite taken in by the parallels that are drawn in this article between Jewish and secular environmental law. This is another example of how Judaism has had a profound affect on the secular world. It makes me proud to be a Jew.

Regarding the comments on politics and environmental science, the argument is irrelevant. Despite what politics or scientific theories are argued, there is one important FACT that we should can all agree on…that is, that the Torah commands ALL of us to care for creation. Therefore, we have an obligation to appreciate and care for the world around us on a daily basis.

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