Judaism, Shabbat and the Environment

By guest bloggers, Ottawa residents, Olive Sonnenschein and Ben Tatham

After six days of hard work, the Sabbath (Shabbat in Hebrew) is the seventh day of the week – the day of rest. It occurs from sunset on Friday evening until sundown on Saturday night. The owner of this blog recently asked us on our point of view of whether Shabbat is an environmentally friendly idea.

This is a great time of year to talk about Judaism’s view on the environment. Last week was Tu B’Shevat, the birthday of the trees. Basically, it’s a Jewish Earth Day. Also, this year is a shmitah year – the seventh year of a seven year cycle where the land is left fallow. But those are discussions for another day.

Shabbat is a day where our attention turns to creation, where we rest, and we don’t tamper with nature. Aside from the more well known prohibitions of not driving and no spending money, we can also not tamper with nature. This means not digging up anything and, unfortunately, also not planting anything new. For us Shabbat is a day to spend with family and friends, relaxing, talking and spending quality time together with no distractions. Because of the prohibitions, we do all of this in our neighborhood – either at each other’s houses, or in the backyard or park when its nice outside. On long summer days, long walks fill our afternoons. For entertainment, we look to books, board games and puzzles. We especially like this for our daughter, and hope that she will not constantly need noisy electronics or television for stimulation. We do not go to shopping malls on Shabbat, meaning we avoid the hustle and bustle of our overly commercial world for one day each week and bypass some excess consumption.

As with any other activity, there are ways of observing Shabbat that are either environmentally friendly or not. It’s a lifestyle choice. For example, we do not leave our oven on for the entire 25 hour Sabbath (though some do). We typically cook our meal for Friday night before sundown. For Saturday lunches, we eat a cold lunch (sandwiches and salads) and then have leftovers for Saturday supper. In the winter, we sometimes make a stew (“cholent”) in a slow cooker, which uses far less energy than an oven.

Then there’s the problem of lighting. There is a prohibition against turning on and off lights on Shabbat, as with all electricity. As a result, some people leave the lights on for the entire day, which is obviously not efficient. Others use timers on lights. It’s surprising how effective a simple night light in the bathroom is. There are some efficiencies that result. To avoid turning on the light in the refrigerator and oven on Shabbat, we just don’t have one – all week — and don’t miss it.

The Jewish year is filled with reminders of our environment, as a remnant of our agricultural society. The major holidays are tied to planting and harvest festivals. We pray for rain in winter and dew in summer. We live outside for a week in the fall on Sukkot (the feast of Tabernacles). The list goes on and on. It’s also all over the literature. A famous story from the Talmud goes as follows:

One day, a man was walking on the road and saw another man planting a carob tree. The passerby asked the man, “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?”
The man replied, “Seventy years.”

He responded, “And do you think you will live another seventy years and eat the fruit of this tree?”

The man answered, “Perhaps not. However, when I was born into this world, I found many carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees.”

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