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Environmental and Vegetarian Lessons
from the Shabbat Morning Service

By Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D.

While there has been recent progress on Jewish consideration of environmental and vegetarian issues, much more needs to be done. One approach is to show how central these issues are in the Jewish tradition. This article discusses several statements in the Shabbat morning prayers that point to Judaism's great concern about animals and the environment.

In the Baruch Sheh'amar prayer, it states that, "Blessed is the One (God) Who has compassion on the earth; blessed is the One Who has compassion on the creatures [animals and people]". Since Judaism teaches that human beings, uniquely created in God's image, are to imitate God's positive attributes, we should also exhibit concern and compassion toward the earth's environment and all of God's creatures.

God is referred to in the Shabbat services as Rachum (the merciful One) and as Av harachamim (Father of mercies). Once again, as we are to imitate God, we should be merciful. The Talmud states that Jews are to be rachmanim b'nei rachmanim (merciful children of merciful ancestors) and that one who is not compassionate cannot truly be of the seed of Abraham, our father (Bezah 32b). It also states that Heaven grants compassion to those who are compassionate to others, and withholds it from those who are not (Shabbat 151b).

In the important ashrei psalm, recited twice during the morning service, it states that God is good to all, and that His mercies are over all of His creatures. According to Rabbi Dovid Sears, in his book A Vision of Eden: Animal Welfare and Vegetarianism in Jewish Law and Mysticism, this verse is "the touchstone of the rabbinic attitude toward animal welfare, appearing in a number of contexts in Torah literature." Referring to the Talmudic teaching that we are to emulate God's ways, he states, "Therefore, compassion for all creatures, including animals, is not only God's business; it is a virtue that we too must emulate. Moreover, compassion must not be viewed as an isolated phenomenon, one of a number of religious duties in the Judaic conception of the Divine service. It is central to our entire approach to life."

Ashrei is followed by a number of psalms extolling God that begin and end with "Halleluyah." The final psalm in that grouping ends with, "Let all souls praise God. Halleluyah! Let all souls praise God. Halleluyah!" Perek Shira, "A Chapter of Song," a mystical hymn dating from the 5th – 7th century that even today is found in many traditional siddurs (prayer books) portrays all living creatures singing their individual songs in praise of the Creator. The universe is filled with hymns as cows, camels, horses, mules, roosters, chickens, doves, eagles, butterflies, locusts, spiders, flies, sea creatures, fish, frogs, and many more offer Biblical songs of praise to God.

This concept is reinforced by other Shabbat morning prayers. The beautiful Nishmat prayer begins with: "The soul of every living being shall bless Your name, Lord, our God; the spirit of all flesh shall always glorify and exalt Your remembrance, our King." Shortly after the Borchu call to prayer, the Hakol Yoducha prayer indicates that "All will thank You and all will praise You … All will exalt you …" The Artscroll siddur commentator states, "Thus every facet of the universe will join in thanking and lauding God." The Keil Adon prayer that is generally sang by the chazzan and congregation together, indicates that God "is blessed by the mouth of every soul."

What about the statements in chapter 1 of Genesis that humans are given dominion over animals (Genesis 1: 28) and that only humans are created in God's image (Genesis 1:27)? The Jewish sages interpreted dominion as meaning responsible stewardship or guardianship. This is reinforced by the fact that immediately after indicating that people have dominion, we are given God's first dietary regimen which is completely free of animal products (Genesis 1:29) and we are soon told that our role is to work the land and also to guard it (Genesis 2:15) – we are to be "shomrei adamah" (guardians of the earth).

There is a very powerful environmental lesson in the second paragraph of the Sh'ma, one of Judaism's most important prayers:

And it will come to pass that if you continually hearken to My commandments that I command you this day, to love Hashem, your God, and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul – then I will provide rain for your land in its proper time, the early rains and the later rains, that you may gather in your grain, your wine and your oil. I will provide grass in your field for your cattle and you will eat and be satisfied. Beware lest your heart be seduced and you turn astray and serve gods of others and bow to them. Then the wrath of God will blaze against you. He will restrain the heaven so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce. And you will swiftly be banished from the goodly land that God gives you.

The message seems clear: if we put God's teachings into practice and imitate His ways of mercy, compassion, and justice, we will have blessings of prosperity, justice, and peace; however, if we turn to false modern gods of materialism, egoism, hedonism, and chauvinism, we will be cursed with many environmental and other societal problems.

If more Jews become aware of the many beautiful Jewish teachings such as those above and strived to put them into practice, it would have great potential to help revitalize Judaism and move our imperiled planet toward a more just, humane, and environmentally sustainable path and a time when "no one shall hurt nor destroy in all of God's holy mountain" (Isaiah 11:9).