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Jewish resource policies: the beginning and the end of the world.


Amidrashic text describes G-d taking Adam for a walk in the Garden of Eden:

G-d said to Adam, "See My works, see how pleasant and good they are. Everything I have created, I have created for you. Be careful not to spoil and destroy My world. If you do so, no one will repair it" (ECCLESIASTES RABBAH 7:13, VILNA EDITION).

This midrash provides insights into two related topics. The first is a broad concept of Jewish resource policies: natural resources should be managed very carefully; parts of them are finite. The second is that at the very beginning, humankind is warned that the world, as far as human life is concerned, may end.

For many years global warming and the threats it poses to humanity have been a major topic in public debate. Countless current environmental problems are the result of false resource policies. This includes how resources are obtained, used and how their waste is disposed of.

Important issues usually develop Jewish aspects even if it seems at first that Judaism and the topic in question are unrelated. One of these aspects is that the possible destruction of the world is compared in a distorted way to the Holocaust. The expression "environmental holocaust" is heard frequently today (GERSTENFELD 2009).

While this midrash gives us an indication of a possibly finite world, Judaism holds no specific opinions about whether we are currently threatened by an environmental catastrophe that could mean the end of humankind. Judaism does, however, have broad views on what our attitude should be toward issues such as resource use and consumption. Torah Judaism predominantly focuses on how Jews should behave. This includes what might be called elements of a Jewish environmental policy.


For a broad analysis of Jewish resource policies, we have to combine two different approaches. One is to study Biblical texts. The other is to examine Jewish law and try to understand its perspective on the use of natural resources. Such an analysis will also provide important insight into Jewish thought about the beginning and end of the world.

The first text about the resource policies of the Torah is the story of Creation. Genesis tells us that Adam and Eve lived in a utopia of resources. There was plentiful supply. All trees and vegetables were at their disposal except for the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life.

Though many resources were available, Adam and Eve did not have a need for most of them. They were vegetarians, and had nothing to transport. They thus did not need animals for any purpose. Other basic needs of early human societies, like housing and security, did not exist in Paradise. Clothing was also not required, so no textiles or other materials were necessary. There was no need for a resource policy because the resources were abundant.


The Garden of Eden was not only a paradise of resources. It was also an environmental utopia. There was no need for any tools or products. Thus, there was no waste or resultant residue. No artificial fertilizers or pesticides were required for plants to grow. Whatever resources Adam and Eve used--which seem to have been only food--was biodegradable. If there was "post-consumer waste," it was probably metabolized into plants. There was no pollution in Paradise. There were no landfills. Animals did not require special protective measures, as they were not attacked by any other creatures. Biodiversity was thus maintained.

Vegetarian and not-yet-violent humankind most probably did not harm nature in any way, or have any other negative impact on the ecosystem. Paradise was also a very lush environment. There was no shortage of water because of all the rivers that surrounded it.

In contemporary resource policies, the concept of sustainability is central. It is defined as: Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony that permit fulfilling the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations. (1) We could say that, initially, perfect sustainability reigned in Paradise. Adam and Eve should have left Paradise for their children with the same resources they received. Unfortunately, they did not.

The initial Biblical worldview on the use of resources seems clear. In Paradise, there is minimal use of resources and whatever resources are used, primarily food, are recycled and thus preserved. We shall see that similar concepts later became central to the Jewish worldview on resources, also as far as humanity at large is concerned.


Important insights can be gained as well from the story of the Flood. Man and animals are punished for their sins. Many people today believe that nature will take revenge on us for having been abused. Global warming is an example of this. It could be translated as: "Mankind has caused the heating up of the world and it will suffer for it." In the Bible, much emphasis is given to the idea that nature is a tool of punishment for moral misbehavior. Similarly, nature can be used to reward people. The story of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea--and the Egyptians afterwards drowning in it--is an example of both. Nature can also be used to teach people something. One might consider the burning bush Moses saw as an example of that.

Concerning resources, the Deluge almost entirely eliminated the human race. Only Noah and his family survived. The Flood also represents a huge destruction of many of the Earth's resources. Of all animals, either one or seven pairs survived. The message of this Biblical story seems clear. Many of the world's resources are destroyed, yet they are not annihilated forever because biodiversity is maintained.

After the Deluge, there was a new development in resource availability. G-d gave humankind permission to eat meat. Previously, Adam could only eat products of the earth because G-d had said, "Behold, I have given you every tree in which there is the fruit of a tree yielding seed--to you it shall be for food" (GENESIS 1:26). Noah, however, was permitted to eat living creatures. "Every moving thing that liveth shall be food for you: as the green herb have I given you all" (GENESIS 9:3). In resource policies terminology, the resources available to us increased when we were allowed to eat meat after the Flood.


There is another Biblical story which details an ideal situation of how resources are best used. In religion, the desert often has significant meaning. Imagine the change in resources when the Israelites left Egypt and trekked through the desert on their way to the Promised Land.

The most enlightening Biblical story on the use of resources by the Israelites in the desert is that of the manna. (2) When Moses commands the Israelites to collect manna, he instructs every householder to gather only enough for those living in his tent (Exodus 16:16). Irrespective of how much manna an individual collected, it always ended up being equal in quantity: one omer per person (Exodus 16:18; Rashi on Exodus 16:17; and Ibn Ezra's commentary on Exodus 16:16). We could learn from this divine equal apportioning that we should not over-consume. (3) This precedes another contemporary environmental concern. Manna is, to some extent, the antithesis of conspicuous consumption (VEBLEN 1965; GERSTENFELD 2002).

The manna that was left behind in the desert did not pollute. Whatever was not collected by the Israelites melted in the sun. According to Midrash, the manna was fully absorbed into the body, without any excretion. Thus, the desert remained clean. Some sources say that the manna that remained was not wasted after it melted either:

As the sun was shining on it, it melted and started to flow, and streams formed from it on the way to the big sea, and there came deer, gazelles, and roebucks, and other animals and drank from them. Thereafter, the nations came and hunted them and ate them, and tasted the Manna through them which came down for the people of Israel (MIDRASH MEHILTA D'RABBI YISHMAEL, B'Shallah 4. See also Talmud Yoma 75b).

When in a religion or a culture a concept exists such as not to waste, it manifests itself often in various sources. A midrash also tells us that from the ram which was sacrificed instead of Isaac, nothing was wasted. The ashes of the ram are the foundation upon which the inner altar was built. As it says: The tendons become the strings of the harp used by David to sing praises to G-d; the leather is fashioned into a girdle worn by the prophet Elijah; and the two horns are also put to use. The left horn is the horn that was blown by G-d on Mount Sinai. The right horn, considered to be larger and greater, is the horn that will be blown in the future to gather the exiles. (4)

A similar insight we get from the Biblical text which tells us that one should not eat flesh torn by beasts in the field. Yet it should not go to waste, but be thrown to the dogs. (5) "You shall be holy people to Me: you must not eat flesh torn by beasts in the field; you shall cast it to the dogs."

The Torah refers to other methods of waste reduction and waste disposal in the desert:

I led you through the wilderness for forty years; the clothes on your back did not wear out, nor did the sandals on your feet ... (DEUTERONOMY 8:4).

The experience of the Jews in the desert is thus an additional major narrative about the ideal use of resources. One type of food took care of all the Israelites' needs. It was totally absorbed in their bodies. Clothing and shoes never wore out.


The fundamental basis of Jewish life, however, is halakhah, Jewish law. Halakhah tells us much about permitted and advisable use of resources. The main resource of human sustenance is land. Land is essential for human survival. Abusive land use and widespread erosion are considered among the most serious threats to sustainability today.

One commandment that explicitly establishes that G-d owns the land is that of the Jubilee year. G-d informs us that:

... the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me (LEVITICUS 25:23).

Thus, G-d, the landowner, made a contract with the Israelites, the tenants, concerning the Land of Israel. This major contract clause tells us that land, a Divinely owned resource, cannot be sold permanently. As the Israelite cannot become a full owner of the land, he may not do whatever he wants with it.

What one might call a second clause of this contract of tenancy is the prohibition for Israelites to work the land in certain years: the sabbatical years (shmitah, see LEVITICUS 25:4-5) and the Jubilee years (yovel, LEVITICUS 25:11). During every seventh year, the Israelite has to let his land lie fallow. The same prohibitions apply to the fiftieth year, the Jubilee, which marks the end of seven sabbatical cycles. In environmental terminology, these Biblical laws embody significant sustainability elements. They enable the regeneration of the earth.

From contemporary economic and environmental viewpoints, the sabbatical as well as the Jubilee years can be seen as legal measures to prevent exhaustion of the land. They express two important sub-categories of modern environmental concern: land use policies and the preservation of natural resources. Soil protection is an integral part of both. From the Jewish point of view, however, the essence of these laws is obeying G-d's commandments. Judaism and environmentalism may converge on policy here, but they represent two radically different worldviews.

A third clause of the contract of tenancy between G-d and the Jewish people is that we are restricted from sowing different species together (kilayim, LEVITICUS19:19). A fourth clause is the obligation to tithe the yield of the land to G-d, the landlord, and to His servants, the priests and the Levites, as well as to the poor.

A fifth clause is that Israelites are not allowed to eat the produce of the land immediately (hadash, leviticus 23:14). The first produce must be brought to the Temple. The concept that the land belongs to G-d is further expressed through this commandment:

... you shall take some of every fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that the L-rd your G-d is giving you, put it in a basket, and go to the place where the L-rd your G-d will choose to establish His name (DEUTERONOMY 26:2).

This commandment allows us to better understand the story of Cain and Abel (GENESIS 4). Cain's sacrifice is rejected because he fails to recognize G-d's ownership and brings a defective offering.

Similarly, we are forbidden to eat the fruits of the tree before a certain year (orlah, LEVITICUS 19:23). Yet another clause forbids the destruction of fruit trees, a concept that has developed in Jewish tradition far beyond that. The idea has been expanded to a prohibition on wanton destruction even of one's own possessions. An additional clause controls self-imposition of ascetic restrictions on consumption, beyond what is forbidden by Jewish law. A nazir is not viewed very positively and has to bring a sacrifice at the end of his period of denial (NUMBERS 6:1-21).


We can apply a similar analysis concerning Jewish dietary restrictions. They can also be seen as part of our tenancy contract. Contrary to the use of land, however, the dietary restrictions apply everywhere. Jewish law forbids the use of certain food resources. One category is meat from non-kosher animals. Another is food that is not properly prepared, for instance, meat from permitted animals not slaughtered according to halakhah. A third category is the consumption of certain resources together or within a certain time span, such as meat and milk. A fourth category is the prohibition of some permitted resources at a specific time, for instance bread and other products made with yeast during Passover. On some days, like Yom Kippur and other fast days, no food or drink is permitted at all. The tenancy contract also embodies Jewish resource policies through limitations on wearing certain mixtures of materials, i.e., wool and linen together (DEUTERONOMY 22:11).

A much more dilute form of a tenancy contract exists between G-d and all of humankind. Paradise was given to Adam and Eve as its tenants, to till and care for it (GENESIS 2:15). Yet, as mentioned above, not all resources were available for their use. They were not allowed to eat meat or the fruit of two specific trees.

Thus, the laws given to the Israelites follow a Divine concept, which was there from the beginning of the world: We are not free to use all the resources that seem available. Few foods were forbidden to Adam and Eve. Yet they transgressed the prohibition and consequently lost Paradise. Prohibitions under the Divine tenancy contract with the Israelites were numerous. Besides concrete outcomes, there were also psychological ones. If resources cannot be used, or can only be used under specific conditions, the limitation creates a very different mindset than if all resources were freely at our disposal. We can conclude that the tenancy contract has created a uniquely Jewish perspective on resources.


Modern environmental movements often claim that we should value and protect nature for its own sake. Frequently, the argument is also made that by harming nature, we harm ourselves. The Torah position on the attitude toward nature is different. The Torah position is to follow G-d's orders. Nature should be protected in the ways that G-d specified in detailed commandments, whether they seem logical or not. Sometimes rationale for the commandments is offered, and sometimes it is not.

One key commandment for the protection of natural resources is the Biblical law forbidding the wanton destruction of fruit trees (bal tashhit--do not destroy, DEUTERONOMY 20:19-20). This principle is perhaps the one most frequently mentioned in contemporary Jewish publications when discussing the attitude of Judaism toward the environment.

This commandment has both environmental and economic aspects. The prohibition expresses two important sub-categories of the environmental discourse. One is protecting elements of nature; a second is preserving natural resources. Fruit from trees feeds people; we should not destroy the basis of human sustenance in order to wage war. Although fruit trees are a renewable resource we should deal with them carefully. One reason could be that it takes a long time for trees to grow and reach the fruit-bearing stage.

Not destroying fruit trees means saving their future fruit for the Israelite conqueror and thus guaranteeing food for it. Classic Jewish literature contains a number of discussions on economic and environmental considerations regarding cutting down fruit trees (GERSTENFELD 1998, p. 112).

Over the centuries, the prohibition in Jewish law against wanton destruction has expanded far beyond cutting down fruit trees (ibid.). Some sources mention that it is prohibited to use more of any resource than necessary to accomplish any given task. This includes natural resources such as fuel (TALMUD Shabbat 67b) or food. The all-too-common practice today of conspicuous consumption would be a violation of this prohibition.

In the words of the renowned nineteenth-century German Jewish scholar Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a righteous person sees every resource in his possession "as holy in his eyes, even if not worth any significant amount of money; and he won't waste it or needlessly destroy it, and he takes responsibility to ensure it is used efficiently. A fortune is in his eyes as insignificant as a shoelace when he needs to spend it for a proper purpose, and the value of a shoelace is as a fortune when it may be wasted without proper purpose" (Hirsch commentary on GENESIS 32:25).


Another important natural resource that humans may use is animals. Jews are only allowed to use animals within the framework of the tenancy contract, according to which we must protect animals in several ways. Jews can use certain animals for food, transport, or work, but the restrictions vis-a-vis animal welfare are significant. One important constraint is the prohibition against eating the limb of a living animal (DEUTERONOMY 12:23). This is so important that it is part of the Seven Noahide Commandments, which all humans are required by G-d to obey.

The welfare of animals and protecting them from harm or pain are principles of Jewish law (ibid.). We are commanded to feed our animals before we ourselves eat. Farmers are forbidden to plow with an ox and a donkey together (DEUTERONOMY 22:10) because this would cause great hardship to the weaker animal, the donkey. Even when we are fasting, for one reason or another, we must still feed our animals to prevent them from suffering (Tsits Eliezer, responsum 6:7). Just as the Jew rests on Shabbat, so must his ox and donkey (EXODUS 23:12).


Upon analyzing the Jewish legal framework, we see that it provides us with a hierarchy of "useful purpose" in regard to using resources. Resources should be used according to the following order of need: The preservation of human life takes precedence over all the commandments of the Torah except for the prohibitions on murder, sexual immorality, and idol worship. (See Talmud Shabbat 132a and Yoma 85b; and Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 328:1).

1. To observe Divine commandments (TALMUD Shabbat 128b)

2. To preserve and enhance human health and well-being (TALMUD Shabbat 129a and 140b)

3. To preserve and enhance human dignity and respect (TALMUD Shabbat 129a, according to Rashi; Kiddushin 32a, see Tosafot)

4. For other needs, as long as the benefits from using and consuming the resource exceeds the value of the resource that is consumed (TALMUD Bava Metsia 91b)

Using resources in a way that violates this hierarchy of values is considered wasteful behavior and is prohibited by Jewish law.

There are several references in classic Jewish literature to the earlier mentioned motif of overconsumption. Again, these are written in a general moral context and not an environmental one. "Who is rich? He who is happy with his lot" (MISHNAH Avot 4:1). In the same Mishnah tractate, gluttony is denounced by the sage Hillel: "The more flesh, the more worms" (MISHNAH Avot 2:8).


At the creation of the world and human life, G-d laid down the basic concepts of resource policies. Paradise was a utopian reality. Another such reality may emerge in messianic times. Opinions differ, however. Some leading Jewish figures claim that no basic rules concerning resources will change in those days.

Yet many other sources refer to changes in human attitudes as well as the use of resources. As far as attitude is concerned, an important aspect involves food in the messianic era. According to a midrash, our priorities will change and our interest in food for physical sustenance will decrease (GENESIS RABBAH 64, Theodor-Albeck, edition). This is gleaned from the prophet Amos:

A time is coming--declares my L-rd G-d--when I will send a famine upon the land: not a hunger for bread or a thirst for water, but for hearing the words of the L-rd" (Amos 8:11).

Other midrashic literature mentions changes in nature in messianic times:

Rabbi Yehudah said that in this world there is a harvest every six months and the trees produce fruit every twelve months. When the Messiah arrives, there will be a harvest every month and the trees will give fruit every two months (JERUSALEM TALMUD Shkalim 50a).


Several classic and modern Jewish sources refer to environmental changes anticipated for the Messianic Age. They concern, inter alia, a modified relationship between man and nature, the end of human mortality, development of different characteristics in nature, changes in the human diet, modifications in sensory perception, as well as cosmic changes. In the vision of the prophet, "The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard lie down with the kid; the calf, the beast of prey, and the fatling together, with a little boy to herd them" (ISAIAH 11:6).

The prophet Ezekiel foresees:

All kinds of trees for food will grow up on both banks of the stream. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail; they will yield new fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the Temple. Their fruit will serve for food and their leaves for healing (EZEKIEL 47:11-12).

Midrashic literature mentions similar changes, quoting Isaiah:

For thus said the L-rd, I will extend to her prosperity like a stream, the wealth of nations like a wadi in flood. And you shall drink of it (ISAIAH 66:12).

The Talmud quotes Rebbe Hiyya, son of Rav Ashi, who says, in the name of Rav, that "trees which bear no fruit, in the future will give produce" (TALMUD Ketubbot 112b).

Elsewhere the Talmud mentions that Rabban Gamliel predicted that one day the trees would produce fruit every day. One of his students joked that there was nothing new under the sun, meaning that as this was not happening anywhere at the time, it would never happen. Rabban Gamliel showed him a caper bush, which produces fruit daily. On another occasion, Rabban Gamliel predicted how in the future the Land of Israel would bring forth bread and woolen clothing. The student once again ridiculed this, and Rabban Gamliel then showed him various things resembling bread and woolen clothes, such as some types of mushrooms and tree bark (TALMUD Shabbat 30b).

A significant aspect of environmental importance concerns food in the Messianic Era. The apocryphal book of Enokh claims that two mythical animals--the leviathan and the behemoth--will become available for food (Enokh 50:24. Hartom edition). This motif is also developed in the Talmud, which quotes Rabba, who says in the name of Rabbi Yohanan, that in the future G-d will prepare a meal for the righteous from the meat of the leviathan (TALMUD Bava Batra 75a).

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Ha'Kohen Kook considered not eating meat as an ideal to strive toward, noting that Adam was a vegetarian. In our days, Rabbi J. David Bleich interprets this as meaning that Rabbi Kook believed that in the Messianic Era all of humankind will be vegetarian, returning to living as in the Garden of Eden (BLEICH 1989, p. 246).


The various elements of the Jewish perspective on resources embody a thoughtful, careful, and detailed approach. It could be summarized by saying that resources are here to serve humanity. Yet, we should take a measured approach toward nature. This is first and foremost so because of the Divine commandments and not because of self-interest, or of a responsible attitude toward natural and social environments.

The Torah and the halakhah instruct Jews to show self-restraint and abstain from wanton destruction as well as from excessive consumption. The Jewish perspective on the required attitude of Jews toward resources, however, is far more detailed.

Nature is G-d's property because He created it. He can do with it as He pleases. He can destroy parts of it as He sees fit. He can use it to reward and punish humankind and specific people. He has made natural resources available, but they should not be abused. G-d has made resources available to the Jewish people under much more specific conditions. This triangular relationship between G-d, man, and nature is a topic worthy of a far more detailed analysis.


Bleich, J. David. 1977. Contemporary Halakhic Problems. New York: Ktav, vol. 3, p. 246.

Gerstenfeld, Manfred. 2009. The Abuse of Holocaust Memory: Distortions and Responses. Jerusalem: Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, and the Anti-Defamation League, pp. 117-118.

Gerstenfeld, Manfred. 2002. Environment and Confusion. Jerusalem: The Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, and Rubin Mass Ltd., pp. 235 ff.

Gerstenfeld, Manfred. 1998. Judaism, Environmentalism and the Environment. Jerusalem: The Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, and Rubin Mass Ltd., p. 112.

Veblen, T. 1965. The Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: Viking Press, original edition 1899.

Presented at the Tenth Miami International Conference on Torah and Science, December 13-16, 2013

(1.) United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): asicinfo.htm#sust ain ability

(2.) For a more detailed analysis, see Manfred Gerstenfeld and Tsachi Golan. 2004. "Manna as an Environmental Paradigm." B'Or Ha'Torah. vol. 14-E, pp. 123-130.

(3.) Ibn Ezra points out in his long commentary on Exodus 16:16 that if someone could not finish eating his portion, he threw the surplus out from his tent.

(4.) Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer, no. 31

(5.) Exodus 22:30

MANFRED GERSTENFELD, PHD, is a former Board Member of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs for which he served as Chairman from 2000 to 2012.

Gerstenfeld has been an international business strategist for forty years. His background is in chemistry, economics, environmental studies, and Jewish studies. His current work focuses on anti-Semitism and changes in the Jewish world.

Gerstenfeld has authored sixteen books and edited six. Books of his have been translated into seven languages. His books which address environmental issues are: Environment and Confusion: An Introduction to a Messy Subject, first edition 1993, second English edition 2000; Judaism, Environmentalism and the Environment, 1998; Environment in the Jewish Tradition, A Sustainable World, (Hebrew), 2002.
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Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2014
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