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Judaism, the Environment, and Vegetarianism

"The earth is the L-rd's and the fullness thereof." (Psalm 24:1)

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Jews must care for the environment.

Perhaps the most fundamental Jewish teaching on the environment is, "The earth is the L-rd's and the fullness thereof."(1) Many basic Torah principles are related to this statement: 

(1) People are to be co-workers with G-d in helping to preserve and improve the world. 

The Talmudic sages assert that people's role is to enhance the world as "co-partners of G-d in the work of creation." (2) There is a Midrash (a story that teaches a Torah lesson based on biblical events and values) that beautifully expresses the idea that G-d needs people to help tend the world: 

In the hour when the Holy one, blessed be He, created the first man,
He took him and let him pass before all the trees of
the Garden of Eden and said to him:
"See my works, how fine and excellent they are!
Now all that I have created, for you have I created.
Think upon this and do not corrupt and desolate My World,
For if you corrupt it, there is no one to set it right after you." (3) 

The Psalmist also expresses the idea that G-d the Creator treats every person as a partner in the work of creation:

When I look at Your heavens, the work of Your hands,
The moon and work which you have established,
What is man that You are mindful of him, and the son of man
that You do care for him?
Yet you have made him little less than G-d, and do crown him
with glory and honor.
You have given him dominion over the works of Your hands;
You have put all things under his feet.... (4)

The talmudic sages indicated great concern about preserving the environment and preventing pollution. They state: "It is forbidden to live in a town which has no garden or greenery" (5). Threshing floors had to be placed far enough from a town so that it would not be dirtied by chaff carried by winds (6). Tanneries had to be kept at least 50 cubits from a town and could be placed only on the east side of a town, so that odors would not be carried by the prevailing winds from the west (7). The rabbis express a sense of sanctity toward the environment: "the atmosphere (air) of the land of Israel makes one wise" (8). 

(2) Everything belongs to G-d. We are to be stewards of the earth, to see that its produce is available for all G-d's children. 

There is an apparent contradiction between two verses in Psalms: "The earth is the L-rd's" (1) and "The heavens are the heavens of G-d, but the earth He has given to the children of man" (9). The apparent discrepancy is cleared up in the following way: Before a person says a b'racha (a blessing), before he or she acknowledges G-d's ownership of the land and its products, then "the earth is the L-rd's"; after a person has said a b'racha, acknowledging G-d's ownership and that we are stewards to see that G-d's works are properly used and shared, then "the earth He has given to the children of man" (10). 

Property is a sacred trust given by G-d; it must be used to fulfill G-d's purposes. No person has absolute or exclusive control over his or her possessions. The concept that people have custodial care of the earth, as opposed to ownership, is illustrated by this story: 

Two men were fighting over a piece of land. Each claimed ownership and bolstered his claim with apparent proof. To resolve their differences, they agreed to put the case before the rabbi. The rabbi listened but could come to no decision because both seemed to be right. Finally he said, "Since I cannot decide to whom this land belongs, let us ask the land." He put his ear to the ground and, after a moment, straightened up. "Gentlemen, the land says it belongs to neither of you but that you belong to it." 

As indicated previously, even the produce of the field does not belong solely to the person who farms the land. The poor are entitled to a portion. 

And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corner of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleaning of thy harvest. And thou shalt not glean thy vineyard, neither shalt thou gather the fallen fruit of thy vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and for the stranger; I am the L-rd, thy G-d. (11) 

These portions set aside for the poor were not voluntary contributions based on kindness. They were, in essence, a regular divine assessment. Because G-d was the real owner of the land, he claimed a share of His own gifts for the poor. 

As a reminder that "the earth is the L-rd's," the land must be permitted to rest and lie fallow every seven years (the sabbatical year): 

And six years thou shalt sow thy land, and gather in the increase thereof, but the seventh year thou shalt let it rest and lay fallow, that the poor of thy people may eat; and what they leave, the beast of the field shall eat. In like manner thou shalt deal with the vineyard, and with thy oliveyard. (12) 

The sabbatical year also has ecological benefits. The land was given a chance to rest and renew its fertility. 

Judaism asserts that there is one G-d who created the entire earth as a unity, in ecological balance, and that everything is connected to everything else. This idea is perhaps best expressed by Psalm 104: 

...Thou [G-d] art the One Who sends forth springs into
brooks, that they may run between mountains,
To give drink to every beast of the fields; the creatures
of the forest quench their thirst. 
Beside them dwell the fowl of the heavens;...
Thou art He Who waters the mountains from His
upper chambers;...
Thou art He Who causes the grass to spring up for the
cattle and herb, for the service of people, to bring forth
bread from the earth....
How manifold art Thy works, O L-rd! In wisdom hast
Thou made them all; the earth is full of Thy property.... 

The preservation of the land of Israel has been a central theme in Judaism. The three festivals (Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot) are agricultural as well as spiritual celebrations. Jews pray for dew and rain in their proper time so that there will be abundant harvests in Israel. Jewish tradition militates against abuse of natural resources and the environment. 

(3) Conserving Resources 

The Torah mandates that we are not to waste or destroy unnecessarily anything of value. This prohibition, called bal tashchit ("thou shalt not destroy") is based on the following Torah statement: 

When thou shalt besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, thou shall not destroy (lo tashchit) the trees thereof by wielding an ax against them; for thou mayest eat of them but thou shalt not cut them down; for is the tree of the field man, that it should be besieged of thee? Only the trees of which thou knoweth that they are not trees for food, them thou mayest destroy and cut down, that thou mayest build bulwarks against the city that maketh war with thee, until it fall. (13) 

This prohibition against destroying fruit-bearing trees in time of warfare was extended by the Jewish sages. It is forbidden to cut down even a barren tree or to waste anything if no useful purpose is accomplished (14). The sages of the Talmud made a general prohibition against waste: "Whoever breaks vessels or tears garments, or destroys a building, or clogs up a fountain, or destroys food violates the prohibition of bal tashchit" (15). In summary, bal tashchit prohibits the destruction, complete or incomplete, direct or indirect, of all objects of potential benefit to people. 

The seriousness with which the rabbis considered the violation of bal tashchit is illustrated by the following talmudic statements: 

The sage Rabbi Hanina attributed the early death of his son to the fact that the boy had chopped down a fig tree. (16) 

Jews should be taught when very young that it is a sin to waste even small amounts of food. (17) 

Rav Zutra taught: "One who covers an oil lamp or uncovers a naptha lamp transgresses the prohibition of bal tashchit" (18) 

Each action mentioned would cause a faster (hence wasteful) consumption of the fuel. 

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch stated that bal tashchit is the first and most general call of G-d: We are to "regard things as G-d's property and use them with a sense of responsibility for wise human purposes. Destroy nothing! Waste nothing!" (19) He indicateds that destruction includes using more things (or things of greater value) than is necessary to obtain one's aim. (20) The following Midrash is related to this concept: 

Two men entered a shop. One ate coarse bread and vegetables, while the other ate fine bread, fat meat, and drank old wine. The one who ate fine food suffered harm, while the one who had coarse food escaped harm. Observe how simply animals live and how healthy they are as a result. (21) 

Becoming vegetarians is the best thing we can do for the environment. 

Consumption of animal products is one of the primary causes of environmental devastation, including the misuse of natural resources, pollution, global warming, and the destruction of the rain forest. Every pound of steak from feedlot-raised steers that you eat comes at the cost of 5 pounds of grain, 2500 gallons of water, the energy equivalent of a gallon of gasoline, and about twenty-five pounds of eroded topsoil. In every one of these ways, a vegetarian diet exerts less strain on our resources that does a carnivorous one. 

Plant foods are far more energy efficient than animal products. We get 2.5 calories of oats, 2 calories of potatoes, or 1.5 calories of wheat and soybeans for every calorie of fossil fuels used to grow them. the other hand, the least energy-inefficient meat production, range-land beef, requires 3 calories of fossil fuel to produce each calorie of food, while feedlot beef, the most inefficient, uses up 33 calories of fossil fuel to make one calorie of meat. Poultry, lamb, eggs, and milk production each fall somewhere between these two. This means that growing crops is at least 5 times more energy-efficient than grazing cattle, 20 times more efficient than raising chickens, and over 50 times more efficient than raising feedlot cattle! In this way, eating animal products clearly both wastes energy resources that were naturally formed over millions of years, and in the process spews pollution into the environment we live in. 

Animal agriculture also wastes water. In the U.S., more water is used to raise livestock than is consumed for all other uses put together. The amount of water needed to produce a pound of meat is fifty times that necessary to produce a pound of wheat. As Newsweek put it, "The water that goes into a 1000 pound steer would float a destroyer." As a result, underground pools of water around the world are drying up. Animal production is the major cause of falling water tables and drying wells across cattle country from west Texas to Nebraska, as the Ogalalla Aquifier, a huge underground lake that like fossil fuels took millions of years to create, is being used up to put animal products on your plate. 

In addition to wasting water, animal agriculture is the number one source of water pollution in the U.S.  After all, livestock produce 130 times as much excrement as the entire human population of the U.S., or over 126,000 pounds every second.  None of this excrement receives sewage treatment, instead it ends up polluting our streams and rivers. 

The livestock industry also wastes land. One third of North American continent is devoted to cattle grazing, and most of our cropland is devoted to producing animal feed.  It takes ten times as much land to maintain a carnivorous diet than to support a vegetarian one.  The massive amounts of pesticides used for feed crops are exempt from regulation, and end up hurting our environment.  As a result of all this, over 5 billion tons of topsoil is eroded in the U.S. every year, 85% of the country's topsoil having been destroyed by animal agriculture. 

Perhaps the most devastating environmental impact of America's carnivorous diets is deforestation.  A primary reason for the destruction of the rain forest in countries like Costa Rica, Colombia, Brazil, Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia, is to provide grazing land for cattle, virtually all of which goes not to the poor in these third world nations, but rather is exported to richer countries like the United States.  In fact, in the past 25 years almost half of the tropical rain forests of Central America have been razed, mostly in provide beef to North America.  The impact is enormous. It is estimated that 90% of the plant and animal species on earth live in the tropics, many still unrecorded by science. Every day more of these species are being pushed to extinction as a result of Americans' animal-centered diet.  The clearing of these forests also leads to a great deal of erosion, increases runoff which causes flooding, takes away the wood peasants often rely upon for fuel, and has been blamed for decreased rainfall. 

Animal agriculture is also a major cause of global warming, responsible for 18% of emissions, more than all the world's transportation combined. On the one hand, the earth relies upon its rain forests to cycle carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas, out of the atmosphere.  The destruction of these forests for livestock production and the resulting buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the cause of global warming.  On the other hand, livestock production worldwide is the single largest source of emissions of methane and nitrous oxide, among the most potent global warming pollutants.  By emitting greenhouse gases and destroying our rainforests, we cause climactic changes which can kill off countless species, cause widespread droughts and storms, and flood large areas of land. The dangers are many and severe, and we directly cause them every time we eat a hamburger.

If we are to respect the principle of bal tashchit that tells not even to chop down a tree in time of war, how can we destroy the world's rainforests, drive species to extinction, and waste away our fossil fuel, water, and land resources, merely because we enjoy a steak?  If we are to truly respect that "the earth is the L-rd's," if we take to heart the words "do not corrupt and desolate My World," if we are to be proper stewards of the "handiwork of G-d" and responsible "co-partners of G-d in the work of creation," how can we continue to pay for widespread environmental devastation through our dietary choices?  The simple fact is that if we are concerned about the environment that was placed in our care by the L-rd, if we care about the world we wish to leave to our children, the best thing we can do is to go vegetarian.  Recycling paper is not enough.  As Jews, we must embrace a vegetarian diet.  


(1) Psalm 24:1 
(2) Shabbat 10a 
(3) Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:28 
(4) Psalm 8:4-7 
(5) Kiddushin 4:12; 66d 
(6) Baba Batra 2:8 
(7) Baba Batra 2:8,9 
(8) Baba Batra 158b 
(9) Psalm 115:16 
(10) B'rachot 30:5 
(11) Leviticus 19:9-10 
(12) Exodus 23:10-11 
(13) Deuteronomy 20:19-20 
(14) Sefer Ha-Chinuch 530 
(15) Kidushin 32a 
(16) Baba Kamma 91b 
(17) B'rachot 52b 
(18) Shabbat 67b 
(19) Horeb; Vol. 2, p. 282 
(20) Horeb; Vol. 2, p. 280 
(21) Ecclesiastes Rabbah 1:18