Eco-Kosher: Jewish Spirituality in Action

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi while teaching at Naropa Institute: "I invented the word eco-kosher, to say that this is ecologically kosher. Now I'll give you an example of eco-kosher. The regular kosher way, is about the dishes that mustn't be contaminated, etc. If I pick a cup to have coffee, Styrofoam would be the best thing to have. It hasn't been used before and after I drink from it, I'll throw it away and nobody else will use it. From the usual kosher place that's the direction to go...but in comparison to what will happen to the planet by my drinking in a Styrofoam, I'd much rather make the other" 

Rabbi Milgram:  "To my teacher's words I would add a thought that occurs to the question, 'So why separate milk and meat in this day and age?' Our tradition teaches the importance of making distinctions. So look at the verse this practice derives from: "Do not seethe a kid in its mother's milk." (Ex. 23:19) Always the emphasis is on mother's milk as a source of life. Meat requires a whole other category of thinking, how was the life taken, with a blessing, as painlessly as possible? To mix the essence of nurturing, milk, with meat, which is dead, is not done. It is too spiritually painful and does not cause the distinction which leads to thinking through your relationship to the chain of life and our methods of raising animals, feeding them, and slaughtering them."

An Essay on Eco-Spirituality  
by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

      Eco-Spirituality is a huge movement in Jewish life and is one of the only places where all denominations speak in a unified voice. The blessing offered the first couple is: "fill the world and conquer it" (Genesis 1:28). Conquest can be for the purpose of exploitation or for the sake of development. Which was intended? Our sages answer this question in a homily:

When God created the first person, showing Adam all the trees in the Garden of Eden and saying, "See My handiwork, how beautiful and choice they careful not to ruin and destroy my world, for if you do, there is no one to repair it after you" (Midrash Rabba Ecclesiastes 7:13, s.v. Re-eh).

Torah views humans as being entrusted with the orderly and proper management of the world. Therefore we may not stand aside and watch the world being destroyed.

Kashrut (kosher) is part of the system of guidelines for ethical Jewish living called halachah (from the verb "walk" or noun "pathway" and is somewhat similar to "tao" in concept.) It continues to offer surprisingly protective principles, as illustrated in the Hebrew National Hot Dog commercial, speaking of reporting to a "Higher Authority." From the core of Kashrut I find it helpful, at first,  to reclaim two  principles:

1. Why, according to the Torah, do we keep kosher? In Leviticus, after the enumeration of permitted and prohibited animals, the text concludes: "For I am the Eternal your God; sanctify yourselves, therefore, and be holy, for I am holy." We keep kosher to be holy, as God is holy. This concept of holiness is associated more frequently and strongly with the dietary laws than with any of the other 613 biblical commandments.

Online Rabbi Samuel Weintraub writes (

"What does it mean to be holy, to be godlike? Partly, it means living ethically, for God is associated throughout the Torah with justice, compassion, and mercy. But holiness is more than ethical living; it involves an underlying religious attitude from which ethics and other humanistic systems are built.

That attitude, as Abraham Joshua Heschel described so eloquently, is one of awe, of an overpowering, nonrational appreciation of purity and completeness in the world and purpose and caring in all life. In strikingly ecological language, Heschel once defined awe as an "intuition for the creaturely dignity of all things and their preciousness to God." (God in Search of Man, p. 75.)

This sense paves the way for ethics. As Professor Fritz Rothschild writes, "One has to be responsive before one can become responsible." (Between God and Man, edited and introduced by Fritz A. Rothschild, p. 29.)

2. One who listens through your soul and intellect to Torah and who takes partnership in creation  seriously, must ask, today, "What shall constitute conscious eating practice in our evolving Jewish tradition, i.e. what might Kashrut mean to me today?"

2. To further inquire: "As our ancestors were inspired in the inherited principles of conscious eating, preparation, raising and transportation of food, how today shall we extend these principles based on what we now know as environmentalists?"

Several important lines of Jewish ethical thought and biblical precept converge in a consideration of establishing a rationale and standards for eco-kosher foods, drugs and practices.

Let's consider three:

1. Bal Taschit

One can see the development of Jewish law and Jewish environmental ethics by tracing the principle of Bal Tashchit, do not destroy or waste, from its biblical origin through later rabbinic interpretation.

1) When, in your war against a city, you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are the trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city? Only trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed. (Deuteronomy 20:19-20)

2) Whoever breaks vessels, or tears garments, or destroys a building, or clogs a well, or does away with food in a destructive manner violates the negative mitzvah of bal tashchit (Kiddushin 32a)

[Talmudic rulings on bal tashchit also prohibit the killing of animals for convenience (Hullin 7b), wasting fuel (Shabbat 67b), and a minority opinion classifies the eating of extravagant foods when one can eat simpler ones as a violation of this precept (Shabbat 140b).]

3) It is forbidden to cut down fruit-bearing trees outside a besieged city, nor may a water channel be deflected from them so that they wither. Whoever cuts down a fruit-bearing tree is flogged. This penalty is imposed not only for cutting it down during a siege; whenever a fruit-yielding tree is cut down with destructive intent, flogging is incurred. It may be cut down, however, if it causes damage to other trees or to a field belonging to another man or if its value for other purposes is greater. The Law forbids only wanton destruction.... Not only one who cuts down trees, but also one who smashes household goods, tears clothes, demolishes a building, stops up a spring, or destroys articles of food with destructive intent transgresses the command "you must not destroy." Such a person is not flogged, but is administered a disciplinary beating imposed by the Rabbis. (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings and Wars 6:8,10)

4) One should be trained not to be destructive. When you bury a person, do not waste garments by burying them in the grave. It is better to give them to the poor than to cast them to worms and moths. Anyone who buries the dead in an expensive garment violates the negative mitzvah of bal tashchit. (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Mourning 14:24)

5) The purpose of this mitzvah [bal tashchit] is to teach us to love that which is good and worthwhile and to cling to it, so that good becomes a part of us and we will avoid all that is evil and destructive. This is the way of the righteous and those who improve society, who love peace and rejoice in the good in people and bring them close to Torah: that nothing, not even a grain of mustard, should be lost to the world, that they should regret any loss or destruction that they see, and if possible they will prevent any destruction that they can. Not so are the wicked, who are like demons, who rejoice in destruction of the world, and they are destroying themselves. (Sefer Ha-Hinukh, #529)

Implications for ECO-Kashrut: For many foods the largest production element today is packing. Reduction in energy use and destruction of trees must become serious considerations in the Kosher-certification system. We can include the environmental appropriateness of packaging methods in determining if a product will be considered kosher. Products which do not come in recycle-able containers, for example, could be determined non-kosher. An increased emphasis on people bringing their own containers for eggs, milk, etc. could become a principle of kashrut. Refrigerators and other appliances could receive eco-kosher certification if they have low energy consumption or favor alternative energy sources.

2. Tzaar Baalei Chayyim

Tzaar Baalei Chayyim, the prohibition against cruelty to animals, is a very important issue according to Jewish law and lies at the heart of kosher methods of slaughter and the Jewish rationale for vegetarianism.

There are numerous references forbidding cruelty which are found in the Torah (see attached materials). Well known among these are:

Not to kill a cow and her calf in the same day (See Leviticus 22:28, Exodus 23:5 and Deuteronomy 22:4.

Not bypass an animal which has collapsed under its load (Exodus 23:5 and Deuteronomy 22:4.)

Not to eat the flesh of a live animal (See Deuteronomy 12:23)

Sending away the mother bird before taking her eggs 
( Deut 22:6-7)

                     Not to work two animals of different strength under one yoke 
                     (See Deut. 22:6-10)

These are just a few examples that show the sensitivity in which we are meant to deal with both wildlife and animals that we own. Some eighteen different laws of the Torah call upon us to live in awareness of the fact that God's creatures require our care and deserve our attention.

Jewish tradition is rich in stories teaching concern about cruelty to animals, among them: The story of Balaam beating his donkey and the donkey protesting, Rabbi Yehuda the Hassid stopping the spurring of horses in the Middle Ages, Story of Hassidic Rabbi Velvel stopping the whipping of the horses., the Jewish legal guide the Shulhan Aruch forbids tying animals' legs in a painful manner..

A gem of a story I found while writing this paper follows:

Rabbi Abramtzi was a man full of compassion for all living things. He would not walk on the grass of the field lest he trample it down. He was very careful not to tread on grasshoppers or crawling insects. If a dog came to the door of his house, he would instruct the members of his household to feed the animal. In winter he would scatter crumbs of bread and seed on the windowsills. When sparrows and other birds arrived and began to pick at the food, he could not remove his gaze from them and his face would light up with joy like that of a little child.

He looked after his horses far better than his coachmen did. When traveling, if the coach had to ascend an incline, he would climb down in order to lighten the load, and more often than not he would push the cart from behind. On summer days he would compel his coachman to stop on the way and turn aside to a field in order that the horses could rest and partake of the pure green grass. The rabbi loved these rest periods in the forest. While the horses were grazing, he would sit under a tree and interest himself in a book. At times he would pray in the field or the forest. This gave him great pleasure, for he used to say,

"The field and the forest are the most beautiful and finest of the Houses of the Lord."

It happened once that the rabbi was on the road on a Friday. It would take another three hours to reach home. Because of the rain, the road was a mess. The wagon could only proceed with difficulty; the mud gripped the wheels and slowed down its progress. It was midday and they had not even completed half the journey. The horses were tired and worn out. They had no energy to proceed further.

The "tzaddik" (saint) told the driver to stop and to give fodder to the horses, so that they could regain their strength. This was done. Afterwards the journey was continued, but the going was heavy and the wagon sank up to the hubs of the wheels in the mud. In fact it was with the greatest difficulty that the horses maintained their balance in the swampy ground. The vapor of sweat enveloped their skin. Their knees trembled and at any moment they would have to rest. The coachman scolded and urged them on. He then raised his whip on the unfortunate creatures. The tzaddik grabbed him by the elbow and cried out: "This is cruelty to animals, cruelty to animals." The coachman answered in fury: "What do you want me to do? Do you want us to celebrate the Sabbath here?"

"What of it?" replied the rabbi quietly. "It is better that we celebrate the Sabbath here than cause the death of these animals by suffering. Are they not the creatures of the Lord? See how exhausted they are? They have not the energy to take one more step forward." "But what of the Sabbath? How can Jews observe the Sabbath in the forest?" asked the coachman.

"My friend, it does not matter. The Sabbath Queen will come to us also here, for her glory fills the whole world, and particularly in those places where Jews yearn for her. The Lord shall do what is good in His eyes. He will look after us, supply us with our wants and guard us against all evil."

[Ben Ami, quoted in Joe Green, the Jewish Vegetarian Tradition pp.19-20.]

3. Shmirat Haguf is the mitzvah to treat your body as sacred space.

"Take care of yourself, and guard your soul diligently" Deuteronomy 4:9

"A Jewish body is very precious since it is necessary for the performance of the practical mitzvot, upon which the rectification of the entire world depends."'   Avraham Greenbaum

"Every person must take great care of his[her] physical body" Likutey Moharan I,22:5

4. Treatment of Laborers: The mitzvah of halanat sachar requires that workers be paid on time. Considerations of labor standards are an essential ethical complement to matters of keeping kosher. Learn more:

Implications for ECO-Kashrut:  

The mitzvah of shmirat ha guf leads to asking about the role of insecticides and hormones in the growing of vegetables and raising of animals. Bovine growth hormone, for example, can affect the growth and development of children. Can this practice be allowed for kosher milk, because it does pass into the animals milk.

Certain insecticides can compromise health in many ways, will this begin to be taken into account in certifying products as kosher or simply each individual Jew choosing what will be part of your sacred conscious eating practice?

A prime example of an issue of Tzaar Baalei Chayyim still common today is the raising of veal calves for slaughter.

On-line one can also find a further explication for the situation with veal (ibid):

Veal is considered a delicacy when white and tender. The meat is white because limited amounts of iron and hemoglobin which contain vital pigments are allowed to enter the calves’’ muscles. This is accomplished in a number of ways. The calves’’ movements are severely restricted within tiny cages made entirely of wood (no contact with any metal is allowed) and they are never exercised or removed from the cages for cleaning. They are kept in complete darkness and cannot see the other calves. Additionally, their diet consists entirely of milk or milk replacer, which prevents them from growing and developing normally. On post-mortem exams, their rumens are completely undeveloped. But more significantly, another very consistent post-mortem finding is the lack of a thymus. The thymus is an essential organ in the immune system of young animals. It is normally present in cattle until approximately two to three years of age, and the normal size in calves is about two and a half inches long. Early involution of the thymus has been shown to be caused by the induction of abnormally high levels of cortisol, as occurs in stressful situations. Complete involution is usually seen in veal calves at slaughter, most probably due to the extreme stress in which they are raised.

This is still an issue of which the consumer is largely unaware. All who are concerned about Tzaar Baalei Chayyim, as well as keeping the strictest ethical level of Kashrut can act decisively against this abuse. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, recently deceased may his memory be for a blessing, did write concerning veal calves raised in crates, in which he states is definitely forbidden to raise calves in such a manner because of the pain that is inflicted on is forbidden to cause them pain for no reason, even if someone may profit from this." (On-line at www.chai-online)

Here are examples of what can be done in a Jewish religious context:

                Do not buy veal.

                Do not eat veal when in other people’’s homes.

                Do not use a caterer with veal on the menu for events.

Pressure the local butcher and caterers to find out where their veal comes from, and the methods used in raising the calves at those plants.

Ask local Rabbis not to give Hashgacha (certification) to Kosher establishments unless veal (from inappropriate sources) is removed from the menu.

      Raise this matter in transdenominational contexts, find advocates throughout the spectrum of Judaism and friends in all religious traditions. Do this for the love of G-d and how we translate G-d’s love through our actions.

Additionally, Tzaar Baalei Chayyim precepts can become a lens for

• reviewing the impact of insecticides on indigenous creatures and plants in farming areas in regard to kashrut certification.

• applied to testing of pharmaceutical products. The kosherness of pharmaceuticals has become a matter of great concern recently due to gelatin capsules being made from the hooves of non-kosher animals, and insulin which is less expensive when made from pigs. These concerns opened the important arenas of pharmaceutical manufacture and testing to kashrut supervision and animal testing could be placed under strict proscription within the framework of eco-kashrut.

• Preventing cloned animals from being considered kosher, until or unless the process normalizes to where most births are normal and animals are not suffering.

• Restriction of genetically engineered fruits and vegetables from kashrut certification until or unless there are controlled studies demonstrating their safety and product labeling indicates cross-over allergies/problems possible from the process.

In conclusion, by expanding the already vigilant system know as kashrut to include the hermeneutics of environmentalism, a public/planet health system can be effectuated of wide benefit. This is not to say that religious systems which supervise food production do not have problems which must also be addressed, however they are a carefully worked out, longstanding process rich in ethics and procedures.

Some recommended readings:

Ellen Bernstein, Ecology and the Jewish Spirit: Where Nature and the Sacred Meet, Jewish Lights 2000

Arthur Waskow (Ed): Torah of the Earth: Exploring 4,000 Years of Ecology in Jewish Thought (2 Volumes), Jewish Lights, 2001.

Ari Elon, Naomi Hyman, and Arthur Waskow (Ed) Trees, Earth and Torah: A Tu B'Shvat Anthology, The Jewish Publication Society, 1999.) 

Seminal pieces, though I do not know the authors personally are:

Evan Eisenberg, The Ecology of Eden, Vintage Books, 1999.

Elijah Judah Shochet, Animal Life in Jewish Tradition, New York: Ktav Publishing House, 1984.