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How to Respect Animals and the Environment in Judaism

Everyone — from secular atheist to Orthodox Jew — can appreciate the wonder and awe of the natural world around them. This deep reverence for nature is deeply rooted in Judaism and forms the basis for two important issues in Jewish ethics: bal tashkhit and tza’ar ba’alei khayim.

Jews have known for centuries that survival depends upon a healthy environment where the food required can be produced, yet the planet suffers destruction at the hands of humankind. The ancient code of bal tashkhit, literally “do not destroy,” prohibits wasteful or senseless destruction of resources and the environment.

Instead, Jewish tradition encourages caring for the land, and, by extension, for the entire world. The Torah states that even farmland should observe a 12-month “Shabbat” of rest every seven years. Today, Jewish groups, basing their actions on religious principles, are among those most active in working for a healthier environment.

The great first-century teacher Rabbi Yokhanan ben Zakkai expressed a gentle love of the earth and the cycles of nature when he taught, “If you are planting a new tree, and someone should say to you that the Messiah has come, stay and complete the planting.”

Bal tashkhit tells Jews to behave responsibly: Drive energy efficient cars when possible, turn off the lights when leaving a room, and avoid squandering food, money, or useable things.

Although Judaism places the role of humans above that of animals, the traditional principle of tza’ar ba’alei khayim, avoiding “the suffering of any living creatures,” insists that Jews must respect and honor animals in their care. For instance, the Talmud states, “A person is prohibited to eat until he first feeds his animals” (Berachot 40a), and Exodus 20:10 notes that on Shabbat the animals should rest alongside their humans.

This underlying law has a number of consequences, including the condemnation of hunting and animal fighting for sport, and the rule that animals must be slaughtered as quickly and painlessly as possible. Many Jews today expand this law to avoid any product that came from ill-treated animals.

Jewish tradition affirms the essential wholeness and holiness of the natural world. A Hasidic teaching enjoins Jews to remove their shoes, just as Moses was asked to take off his shoes when approaching the Burning Bush, because the ground he was standing on is holy. All people are always standing on holy ground.

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