Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center
Parashat Ki Tetze 5762/ August 17, 2002
Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty
of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel.
A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies,
Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center,
and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet
under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's
International Center for Jewish Identity.
Prepared for Internet
Publication by the Center for IT & IS Staff at Bar-Ilan University.
Inquiries and comments to:
Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,
Parashat Ki Tetze 5762/ August 17, 2002
The Eco-Ethics of the Torah
Dr. Yael Shemesh
Department of Bible
Towards the end of Parashat Shoftim, which is similar in
language and content to Parashat Ki-Tetze, we find a proscription against
chopping down fruit-bearing trees in time of war, when laying siege to an enemy
city (Deut. 20:19). This ecological instruction strongly influenced
post-biblical Jewish views on ecology, as we shall see below. In the last three
decades great interest has been shown in ecology, especially the branch known as
environmental ethics or eco-ethics, primarily due to the irreversible damage
that human beings have been causing the earth. Motivated by short-term profit,
people have been destroying the world in which they live, destroying rain
forests, polluting the water and air, depleting natural resources, and bringing
about global warming and the extinction of various species of animals and
plants. This process of destruction has begun to accelerate relatively
recently, since the industrial revolution in the 18th century. Hence
it is amazing to discover the great interest in ecology shown by our ancient
sources - the Bible and even more, the Oral Torah, the writings of the
A. Anthropocentric vs. Biocentric Ecology
Two opposing approaches can be identified among environmental
activists regarding the question of man's place in the world: the
anthropocentric approach, which revolves around human beings, as opposed to the
biocentric approach, which revolves around nature. The anthropocentric approach
views human beings as the CEO's of the world's resources, which must
be managed wisely, sparingly, lovingly and responsibly, especially for
man's own sake. Hence the term: stewardship. In contrast, the biocentric
approach, termed "deep ecology," rejects placing human beings at the
center, viewing them simply as another species of no greater importance than all
the rest. Deep ecology emphasizes that the right of rivers, trees, pandas,
etc., to exist does not stem from the benefit that they bring human beings but
from the very fact of their existence.
B. The Two Approaches as Viewed in Judaism
When we ask ourselves what stand Judaism takes with respect to
the place of human beings in the world, we are likely to answer that it matches
the anthropocentric approach since, according to the story of Creation, only Man
was created "in the image of G-d" (Gen. 1:27), and the task assigned
him in the Garden of Eden was "to till it and tend it" (Gen. 2:15).
Nevertheless, an instructive article by Fink shows that alongside the
anthropocentric approach one can also find a biocentric approach in
A prime example of rejection of the anthropocentric approach
can be found in the book of Job, which seems to scorn the presumptuousness of
humans thinking themselves to be the center of the universe. The first response
that G-d gives out of the tempest describes the miracles of Creation, which find
expression inter alia in the fact that the Lord sends clouds and
thunderstorms "to rain down on uninhabited land, on the wilderness where
no man is, to saturate the desolate wasteland, and make the crop of grass sprout
forth" (Job 38:26-27). The Lord's concern for places that are not
settled by human beings is not consonant with a view of man as himself being the
object of Creation. Further on G-d describes all sorts of animals over which He
extends His providence. What they all have in common is that they bring no
benefit to human beings: the wild ass or the wild ox (39:5-12), and the
behemoth and leviathan, described in G-d's second speech (40:15-32). It
is clearly stated and emphasized that all of them are animals that man cannot
subdue and domesticate to serve his purposes. In other words, they have a
reason of existence of their own, bearing no relationship to human beings. How
different this picture from the views so deeply rooted in us regarding our place
in the universe!
Fink illustrates the tension between the two ecological
schools by citing the gemara, Tractate Sanhedrin (38a), which
discusses the question why Man was made at the end of Creation. According to
one opinion, it was "so that he can enter the banquet immediately. It is
like a king of flesh and blood who builds a hall, decorates it, prepares a
banquet, and then lets in his guests." In other words, Man is the
pinnacle of Creation, the guest of honor in the Lord's world, a world
created for the pleasure and use of the human race.
Alongside this view, however, we also find the opposite view:
"Should he become haughty, He would say to him: the mosquito was created
before you." Fink sums up by saying that the tension between faith in our
ability to influence Creation (stewardship) and recognition of our own
insignificance (deep ecology) - tension which finds expression in
classical Jewish sources - creates a balance between the call to action
and the need to maintain a measure of
C. The call to action - Biblical commandments with an ecological
There are several commandments in the Bible that can be
ascribed an ecological purpose, either central or incidental to the commandment,
aside from the prohibition against chopping down fruit trees. For example, one
of the reasons given by Maimonides for the commandment to let the land lie
fallow in the seventh year (Lev. 25:1-5) is, "So that the yield of the
land improve from not having been
in other words, the land will
renew its strength and be improved from the temporary rest given it.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch gave an interesting ecological
explanation for the commandment to rest on the seventh day. The Sabbath has
didactic importance, according to him. After six days of activity, during which
human beings act as "stewards of the universe," using the land,
plants and animals to satisfy their wishes, comes the Sabbath, a day designed to
remind us that the things surrounding us do not belong to us, rather, to the
Lord. Therefore, "Every Sabbath return to the Lord His universe,
acknowledge the Lord your G-d, and constantly remind yourself that this universe
is borrowed from the Lord... Remember who is its Master, that this borrowed
universe belongs to the Lord, and that He, not you, rules
Parashat Ki-Tetze as well contains several commandments with
an ecological purpose or at least ecological ramifications:
- The commandment to chase away the mother bird
(Deut. 22:6-7), to which Nahmanides adds, alongside its educational purpose
(shunning cruelty), also an ecological explanation: "For Scripture did
not permit destructiveness, wiping out a
proscription against certain combinations (Deut. 22:9; Lev. 19:19), which is a
warning to us, "to safeguard each variety, so that one variety not become
mixed with another" (Ibn Ezra's commentary on Lev. 19:19), since,
"a person who combines two varieties introduces a change and denial of
primordial Creation, as if he thought that the Holy One, blessed be He, had not
sufficiently perfected His world, and so he wishes to assist in the creation of
the world by adding new creations" (Nahmanides on Lev.
- The instruction (with specific guidance)
to maintain proper hygiene in army camps (Deut.
- The prohibition against not burying
the dead immediately (Deut. 21:22-23), which according to Ralbag was intended to
prevent pollution of the air: "You shall not defile the land
- by the putrefaction that will be there, if the corpse remains
D. Ecological-Halakhic aspects as developed in the literature of the Sages
The prohibition against chopping down goodly trees.
The biblical prohibition against chopping down fruit-bearing trees is widely
discussed and considerably further developed in the writings of the Sages. In
the gemara it says that one who chops down goodly trees "never sees
blessing in this world" (Pesahim 50b); that was Rabbi
Haninah's explanation of his son's untimely death, a punishment for
his having chopped down a fig-tree before its time (Bava Kama 91b).
Those who chop down goodly trees are included in the list of those in whose wake
people are "stricken by curses" (Tosefta Sukkah [Lieberman
ed.], 2.5). According to the midrash, Pirkei Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 33 (M.
Higger ed., , p. 202), "When a tree that produces fruit is chopped
down, the sound resounds around the world but is not heard."
"Lest you destroy." The Sages
extended the biblical proscription against destroying fruit trees, developing it
into a broad ecological principle of "bal tashkhit"
("lest you destroy"), forbidding destruction of anything that is
useful or beneficial to mankind. Maimonides summarized the idea as follows:
"[This applies] Not only to trees; also anyone who breaks vessels, rips
clothing, demolishes a building, blocks a spring, or wastes food by spoiling it
transgresses the injunction not to destroy, and is sentenced to none other than
lashes by rabbinic proscription" (Hilkhot Melakhim 6.10).
Removing industries that cause pollution.
were very attentive to keeping industries that cause pollution away from
inhabited areas in order to minimize the harm to people. For example, the
Mishnah instructs that threshing floors be far from the city because of the
chaff (Bava Batra
2.8), and that the leather industry, which causes
pollution, be distanced at least fifty cubits from the city (Bava Batra
2.9). The Tosefta cites Rabbi Nathan's instruction: "Kilns [lime
kilns for firing pottery] are to be removed fifty cubits from the city"
(Tosefta Bava Batra
Prohibiting Water Pollution.
The Sages also had
something to say about maintaining water sources fresh and clean, as we see in
the following instruction: "When dens are made to serve the public for
washing the face, hands and feet, if a person's hands and feet are soiled
with mire or feces, it is forbidden [to wash there]. In a well or pit, no
matter what it is forbidden" (Tosefta Bava Metzia
E. Poetry and Belles Lettres on Nature - from
the Bible to Rav Kook
The beauty of nature works magic on human beings, expanding
the heart. Esthetic enjoyment of G-d's world is often accompanied by a
religious experience. For example, contemplating Creation brought the author of
Psalms to a recognition of the Lord's might and wisdom: "How many
are the things You have made, O Lord; You have made them all with wisdom; the
earth is full of Your creations" (Ps. 104:24). According to Pirkei
all of Creation, including
all the plants and animals, sings the praises of the
This idea was eloquently expressed by Rabbi Nahman of
Bratislav: "Know that every single shepherd has a unique tune according
to the grass growing in the place where he pastures his sheep. For every single
animal has a special grass that it needs to eat ... and according to the grasses
and the place where he pastures, so too he has a tune. For every blade of grass
has a song that it sings, which is like a passage of poetry. And from the song
of the blades of grass, the tune of the shepherd is composed." He
recommended praying in nature, "among the blades of grass and
trees," because, "when a person prays and discourses in the field,
then the blades of grass and shrubs of the field all come into his prayer,
helping him and giving him strength in his prayer and
Rav Kook believed that when people make their lives fit in
with nature then they can restore the sense of natural bliss, fine attributes
and the experience of spiritual elation that they lost because of having grown
apart from nature.
He himself was extremely assiduous about not destroying the
works of the Creator unnecessarily. In his memoirs Rabbi Arye Levin recounts
how he learned compassion from Rav Kook, one day when accompanying him to
meditate in the field:
On the way I picked a plant or flower. The Rabbi was shocked,
and said to me quietly, "Believe me, that all my life I have taken care
not to idly pick any grass or flower that could grow and flourish, because there
is not a blade of grass in the lower realms without a correspondence in the
upper realms that tells it: Grow! Every blade of grass says something, every
stone whispers some secret, every creations sings some song." These
words, emanating from a pure and holy heart, became deeply engrained in my
being, and since then I have begun to have more compassion for
Rav Kook's admiration for every blade of grass or
flower, for every animal and person, stemmed from their all being creatures of
G-d and as such being important and having a place in the world that He created.
This approach calls to mind the eloquent words of Rabbi Samson Raphael
The earth does not belong to you, rather you are given to it.
You must respect it as holy ground and view every creature as a creation of G-d
and brother to you, loving it and helping it fulfill its destiny according to
the Lord's design. Therefore, every creature should be reflected in your
soul, therefore your heart should resonate with every cry of distress and with
every shout of glee in the world; therefore your heart should rejoice when buds
appear in the land and mourn over every flower that wilts ... They have all been
given you on loan, and they all will appear some day before the throne of the
Lord to testify either for you or against you, if you ignored them or used them,
whether for blessing or for curse.
Let me conclude with the edifying remarks of the Midrash on
the consequences of destroying the world, and its warning which is so relevant
to our lives today:
"Consider G-d's doing! Who can straighten what He
has twisted?" (Eccle. 7:13). When G-d created Adam he took him and showed
him all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him: Behold how fine and
excellent are all the things that I have made! And all that I created, I
created for your sake. Take care not to spoil and destroy My world, for if you
spoil it there shall be no one to come after you and repair it. (Eccl.
Rabbah [Vilna ed.], 7.1)
Dan Fink, "Between Dust and
Divinity: Maimonides and Jewish Environmental Ethics", in Ecology and the
Jewish Spirit, ed. by Ellen Bernstein, Woodstock 1998, pp. 230-239.
 Guide to the
, Part III, ch. 39.
Rabbi Samson Raphael
Hirsch, Sefer Horev - Ra'ayonot al Hovot Yisrael ba-Golah
New York 1953, Pirkei ha-Edut
, par. A - The Sabbath (pp. 69-70).
interpretation of this verse.
For further reading see
Nahum Rakover, Eikhut ha-Sevivah - Heibetim Ra'ayoniyim
u-Mishpatiyim be-Mekorot ha-Yehudiyim
, Jerusalem 1993, Ch. 4:
" [Air Pollution], pp. 65-71; Eikhut
, Ch. 2: "Zihum Avir - Nizkei Ashan
" [Air Pollution - Hazards of Smoke and Fumes],
pp. 37-63; Barry Freundel, "Judaism's Environmental Laws," in
Ecology and the Jewish Spirit
, pp. 214-224.
For further elaboration,
see Rakover, loc. sit
., Ch. 5: "Zihum ha-Mayim
[Water Pollution], pp. 73-76.
 Pirkei Shira - hem
Shirot Beru'ei Maalah u-Matah
, ed. by Hannaniah of
and Gamliel ben Hananiah of Mantua, 1681. Written between the fifth and seventh
For example: The song of
the snake - "The Lord supports all who stumble, and makes all who
are bent stand straight" (Ps. 145:14); the song of the mouse -
"I extol you, O Lord, for You have lifted me up, and not let my enemies
rejoice over me" (Ps. 30:2); and in apposition, the song of the cat
- "I pursued my enemies and overtook them" (Ps.
Abraham Isaac ha-Cohen
Kook, Ein Ayah - Berakhot
, Vol. 2, Jerusalem 1990, p.
Simhah Raz, Ish
Tzadik Haya - Masekhet Hayyav shel Rabbi Aryeh Levin
1973, p. 74.
Rabbi Samson Raphael
Hirsch, Igrot Tzafun - 19 Mikhtavim al ha-Yahudut
, Bnei Brak
1967, Fourth Letter, pp. 46-48.