Simon Jackson
Legal Advisor to Torah Mitzion

“When God created Adam, he showed him all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him: See my works, how lovely they are, how fine they are. All I have created, I created for you. Take care not to corrupt and destroy my world, for if you destroy it, there will be no one to repair it after you!” (Kohelet Rabbah 7). How can we protect our natural environment from pollution and destruction, so that we can live in God’s world while still enjoying its beauty and deriving from it the maximum physical and spiritual benefit?

Israel Today

In Israel, the year 1994 was declared the “Year of the Environment.” One of the many results of this declaration was that the environment was selected as the central theme of the Israeli educational system.

In honor of the Year of the Environment, the book “Environment Reflections and Perspectives in Jewish Sources” was published. The book analyzes man’s relation to the environment around him, as well as the vast legislative material in this area, from the Torah, the Mishnah, and Talmud (second through fifth centuries) through the well-known codifiers, such as Maimonides and the Shulkhan Arukh, and the rich responsa literature. The book also traces how principles of environmental protection were given expression in some ordinances passed in Jerusalem’s new neighborhoods constructed outside the city walls in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Over our next few columns, we will cite a number of these ordinances, which make fascinating reading, and are currently only available in the Hebrew language.

The Israeli legislature, the Knesset, has enacted laws in such relevant areas as air and noise pollution, water pollution, recycling of waste, dangerous substances, protection of wildlife and vegetation, and establishment of nature preserves. We will refer to these laws to illustrate the extent to which environmental issues have become entrenched in Israel and throughout the world, albeit that there is still much room to go before reaching the ideal society envisaged by the Halakha.

Back to the Sources – “The Earth is Mine” v. “Subdue it”: A Contradiction in Terms?!

The Torah appears to contradict itself on this matter. On the one hand, Hashem affirms that “the Earth is Mine” (Vayikra 25:23), i.e. the Earth is not subject to man’s absolute ownership, but is rather given to us as mere custodians to look after; le’ovdah u’leshomrah – to work, but also to protect (Bereshit 2:15).

But in the very next verse, as well as two verses later, Hashem decides to “make man in our image, after our likeness; and let him have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth… And God blessed [Adam and Eve]: Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creeps upon the earth.”

According to Nachmanides, the command “and have dominion over” means that Man was given dominion over the earth to do as his will with the rest of the animal creation, to build, uproot, plant, mine metal from the earth and the like. The phrase, therefore, refers rather to man’s conquest of the desert and his constructive and civilizing endeavors to build and inhabit the world, harness the forces of nature for his own good and exploit the mineral wealth around him.

The above Biblical sources that refer to man’s “dominion” over nature thus appear to grant man unlimited control of his world?!

Resolution of Contradiction

Rav Kook has an insightful understanding of the concept of “dominion”. To quote his words: “There can be no doubt to any enlightened or thoughtful person, that the ‘dominion’ mentioned in the Bible in the phrase, ‘and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creeps upon the earth,’ is not the dominion of a tyrant who deals harshly with his people and servants in order to achieve his own personal desires and whims. It would be unthinkable to legislate so repugnant a subjugation and have it forever engraved upon the world of God, who is good to all and whose mercy extends to all He has created, as is written, ‘the earth is founded upon mercy’ (Psalm 89:3).”

Three Things That Grant Man Tranquillity

The Rabbis of the Talmud gave expression to the environment’s effect on man’s spirit in their statement: “Three things restore a man’s consciousness: [beautiful] sounds, sights, and smells. Three things enlarge a man’s spirit: a beautiful dwelling, a beautiful wife, and beautiful clothes.”

Rav Kook (Eyn Aya, Berachot 57b) explains beautifully the yishuv hada’at (tranquillity) which a person receives from sounds, sights and smells:

“God created the soul of Man upright, happy in life, and enjoying tranquillity in its feelings; and any time that a person directs his life to the life of Nature in general, he will find happiness and gladness of heart. Unfortunately, due to the belligerent nature of human society, Man has become distant from the pure sentiments of Nature, and his mind has also become clouded. Therefore, the attribute with the ability to restore Man to his natural consciousness is the quality of the common general tranquillity which a person finds in Nature, the kindness of Hashem which fills the entire universe: the sound of the song of the birds from among the branches which give forth song [see Psalm 104:12], the sight of the splendor of the Carmel and the Sharon with their beautiful flowers, the smell of the lilies and every delightful fruit which is in the Garden of Hashem, the Earth which He gave to Man. These are the creations which restore a person to Nature, after he has become removed from it by the culture and society which distanced him.”