Jewish Law Requires Us to Protect the Environment
“When you besiege a city for many days to wage war against it to capture it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them, for you may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down. Is the tree of the field a man, to go into the siege before you?” (Devarim 20:19)
Throughout most of history, religious Jews’ hygiene standards were far more advanced than those of most other people. Indeed, Jewish law dating back thousands of years contains a far-reaching codex for personal and environmental cleanliness that would seem novel and forward-thinking to many 21st century lawyers, environmentalists, and public health-care workers.
Besides numerous laws that prohibit needless destruction of the natural environment and its resources, as well as pollution in its various forms, Jewish Law also seeks to preserve animal life and maintain clean and pleasant conditions both in the home and in the public domain.
In a fascinating narrative, the Talmud tells a story of the great Rabbi Huna, who asked his son why he was not attending the lectures of Rabbi Chisda, a brilliant younger colleague. Rabbi Huna’s son, in his innocence, answered that he wanted “to hear words of Torah and not about worldly matters.” Taken aback by the response, Rabbi Huna asked his son which “worldly matters”? The son responded that the sage lectured about cleanliness and appropriate behavior in the bathroom. After hearing this, Rabbi Huna exclaimed in wonderment, “Here are matters of health [and thus of Torah], and you call them worldly matters!?!”
On another occasion, the Mishna states that “it is not permitted to soak clay in the public highway” and that “during building operations, stones [and other building materials] must be deposited immediately on the building site [and not left on the road].” The Talmud also forbids other forms of litter, such leaving shards of glass in the public domain. The purpose of these laws is to protect the public against injury, and also to ensure a minimum standard of cleanliness in society.
With their keen insight into human nature, the Jewish sages understood the direct impact of these laws on a society’s psychological well-being. The Talmud quotes a source that states if a spring serves as the water supply for two towns, but does not provide sufficient water for both, the town closer to the source takes precedence. The other town, in such a case, would need to find other ways to get sufficient water. However, when it is a choice between the farther town’s drinking water and the nearer town’s laundry water supply, the farther town’s drinking water should come first.
To our surprise, Rabbi Yossi objects to this ruling and states that the closer town’s laundry water will take priority over the farther town’s drinking water. The Talmud, explaining Rabbi Yossi’s reasoning, refers to a statement of the famous authority Shmuel, who says that constantly wearing dirty clothes causes depression and mental instability.
In other words, clean garments are not a luxury. Jewish law considers cleanliness a necessity. The great Halachic authority Rabbi Ahai Gaon (8th century) ruled that the law is decided according to Rabbi Yossi’s opinion. A wealth of similar laws and observations are to be found throughout traditional Jewish literature.
Unfortunately, these laws do not seem to be of great concern within many Orthodox communities today. Though litter does not pollute the streets of Orthodox communities any more than in some secular communities, one still wonders why rabbis and religious leaders who are so genuinely committed to the Torah and tradition do not speak out on these issues to ensure that the relevant laws receive the attention they deserve. Indeed, given the spirit of Jewish Law, we would expect that the streets in Orthodox neighborhoods would look remarkably cleaner than anywhere else.
By implementing the Torah’s laws in this realm — which should really not be too difficult, for after all, we’re only talking about throwing garbage in bins rather than in the streets — Orthodox communities will take away much of the ammunition in their secular detractors’ arsenals, and in so doing will make a tremendous kiddush Hashem, which is in fact the purpose of being a Jew.
Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo is the Founder and Dean of the David Cardozo Academy, as well as the author of 13 books and numerous articles in both English and Hebrew. Hailing from the Netherlands, Rabbi Cardozo is known for his original and often fearlessly controversial insights into Judaism.