Environmental Issues in Contemporary Halakha

by Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld

In classical Judaism, many references are made to issues we nowadays would define as “environmental”. These are found, for instance, in both the Tanakh’s halakhic parts and the narrative. The stories of Paradise, the Flood, the ten plagues, and the falling of the manna have multiple environmental aspects. Talmud, Midrash literature, rabbinical responsa and other texts also refer to many environmental issues. Together they present a specific Jewish position on what emerged only a few decades ago as a separate field.(1)

Halakha refers to a number of major environmental concerns, such as preventing the destruction of elements of nature, the treatment of animals, the conservation of natural resources, the allocation of space, pollution protection and avoiding nuisance to others. If one puts all halakhot in this field together, and analyzes them, one obtains an idea of the role of the environment in Jewish civil society from the legal viewpoint.

Few references, however, are made in contemporary responsa to environmental issues. We would find, for instance, far more halakhic rulings on medical matters than on environmental ones. Orthodox Jewry today apparently sees environmental issues as a general concern rather than a specifically Jewish one.


The field of contemporary environmental Halakha is not entirely void, however. Halakhic positions opposing smoking go back 400 years (2). Among contemporary authorities, the late R. Moshe Feinstein forbids smoking in public places (3). He also explicitly prohibits the smoking of marijuana. Other rulings against smoking were issued by the late Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, R. Chayim David Halevi as well as R. Eliezer Waldenberg (4).

In recent years, many more rabbinical authorities have ruled against smoking, including Israel’s former Chief Rabbi, R. Ovadia Yosef, and the Bostoner Rebbe, R. Levi Yitzhak Horowitz (5).

Among contemporary decision-makers, R. Halevi has covered the widest range of environmental issues. A number of his responsa refer to various aspects of smoking. For instance, when a son is asked to purchase cigarettes for his father, he must refuse (6). If the son sees the father smoking, he must politely warn him of the health risks as well as his transgressing a divine commandment (7).

In another responsum, R. Halevi is asked whether rabbis can release from his vow a person who has sworn not to smoke. His position is that a rabbinical court cannot do so, because smoking is forbidden for health reasons (8).

Several aspects concerning smoking have also been discussed by R. Levi Yitzchak Halperin. In his view, smoking on Jewish holidays was initially permitted as it was believed to be good for one’s health and digestion; it was also supposed to enhance the enjoyment of food. Today, it is generally acknowledged that smoking is dangerous for one’s health. R. Halperin thus concludes that smokers should particularly restrain themselves from smoking on Jewish holidays and that the same should apply to the whole year. A smoker should always be aware that, with one cigarette, he may be endangering the life of another person present. R. Halperin also states that one is entitled to stop a person with whom one shares a dwelling from smoking in their common facilities, even if one has tolerated this in the past (9).

Wearing fur coats

Another of R. Halevi’s responsa deals with fur coats, an issue which is drawing a lot of media attention in the Western world. A concerned Israeli wrote to him after attending a chazanut concert in Tel Aviv’s Hechal Hatarbut. People were demonstrating outside the hall against the wearing of fur coats. The writer stated that the protesters seemed to be non-religious and wished to prevent unnecessary suffering to animals. The concert-goers were almost all orthodox.

The writer added that, initially, he thought that the concert-goers implicitly expressed the opinion that all that God had created, He had done so for mankind, and thus it was permissible for man to hunt thousands of animals in order to dress. On second thought, he wondered whether it was right to kill thousands of animals because women wanted to wear expensive fur coats, as they could achieve the same warmth through wearing wool (10).

In his answer, R. Halevi analyzes the Torah’s attitude to animals. He states that this subject has ideological and moral importance because God created not only man but also the animals. He notes that many Torah commandments stress a positive attitude toward animals.

He adds that rabbinical decisions permit hunting for the purpose of eating, but not for enjoyment. Even those rabbis who allow hunting for furs do so only if the animal is killed swiftly and without suffering. R. Halevi explains that he has verified with an expert that animals are often caught in very painful ways. Thus, even if the animal is needed for medical purposes, its use is only permitted if it is caused as little pain as possible. In light of this, R. Halevi concludes that it is forbidden to kill animals “in a painful way in order to beautify and warm oneself with their skins” (11).

Attitude toward animals

The Jewish attitude toward animals has been the subject of many responsa throughout the ages. One modern aspect is animal experimentation. R. Yechiel Ya’akov Weinberg permits these activities because the elimination of human pain and suffering is more important than the prevention of animal pain (12). He states explicitly that doctors should not hesitate to cause pain to animals if it advances medical science: in this case, abstaining would not be not a pious act. A pious person may be harsh with himself, but not in cases which affect others.

R. Eliezer Waldenberg also deems medical experimentation permissible, while stressing that efforts must be made to minimize the animals’ suffering (13). He believes that medical or economic purposes override the prohibitions of wanton destruction and causing animals unnecessary pain. Other rabbinical authorities have also discussed this subject, reaching differing conclusions (14).

In one of his responsa R. Ovadia Yosef condemns bullfights: “The bullfight is in total contradiction to the spirit of our holy Torah. It is an expression of the culture of sinners and cruel people which Jews should not be.” (15) He stresses that the prevention of unnecessary cruelty to animals is a very serious prohibition, (16) adding: “Whoever goes to the stadium to watch bullfighting and pays an entrance fee is an associate of destructive people and helps those who transgress.” (17)

Being asked whether going to the zoo is permitted, R. Ovadia Yosef affirms this, as it causes man to be impressed by God’s creation (18). In another responsum, R. Halevi considers whether it is permissible to keep pets in a cage or fish in an aquarium (19). He decides that this is not forbidden, as man learns from watching their behavior. The same applies to visiting a zoo. If one comes across rare animals, one also gets the chance to recite a blessing in praise of God for His creation. He adds that rabbinical authorities in the past did not consider there to be any prohibition if the animals’ needs are provided for.


Over the past decades, there has been some discussion on vegetarianism, an issue on which there are many halakhic sources. R. J. David Bleich has reviewed this subject. He notes that there were pious individuals in the past who did not eat meat; however, many of them did so not out of ethical considerations, but because they were afraid that the lax standards of supervision of the Jewish dietary laws would cause them to transgress. Here he mentions orthodox immigrants to the United States in the early years of the 20th century (20).

R. Bleich states that those who find meat consumption repugnant are expressing an aesthetic rather than a moral response (21). Such aesthetic vegetarianism is compatible with Jewish teaching. However, while Judaism does not command the eating of meat, it does not see a moral ideal in vegetarianism (22).

The former Chief Rabbi of Ireland, R. David Rosen – himself a vegetarian – is of the opinion, however, that eating meat today is halakhically forbidden. He writes: “The current treatment of animals in the livestock trade definitely renders the consumption of meat halakhically unacceptable as the product of illegitimate means.” (23,24)

Issues relating to food

Various issues concerning the use of food are dealt with in R. Halevi’s responsa. Asked whether it is permitted to destroy surplus food in order to stabilize prices, he concludes that it is preferable to give the surplus away to poor people who cannot afford to buy it (25). If this is impossible, or there is no need for it, it is not forbidden to destroy the food “in a respectful way” (26).

In this responsum, R. Halevi warns that people should not throw unpackaged sweets or peeled nuts among the congregants at a wedding orbar mitzvah because much of this is then broken, becoming inedible (27).

18th century Halevi is also asked about the use of food in any way that renders it unfit for consumption, leading to its being thrown away. As examples he mentions cutting vegetables and painting them, sticking vegetables as a decoration in paintings, or the use of flour for making glue. R. Halevi is of the opinion that as this is an unworthy use of food, it is forbidden if there is a suitable substitute (28).

R. Yitschak Silberstein reviews issues such as the permissibility of throwing away old bread, and the disposal of food leftovers from wedding halls (29). He says that pious people do not throw away old bread and educate their children not to be so spoiled as to only eat fresh bread. People who have not reached this degree of piety can be taught not to actively throw the bread away in the garbage, but to lay it on the side of road or on hedges, without wantonly destroying the bread. R. Silberstein underlines that there is no sin in not eating it.

With regard to the owners of halls: one better solution than throwing the surplus food away requires more time. In R. Silberstein’s opinion, the destruction of time is no better an approach than the destruction of food, especially as the poor who come begging are not satisfied with bread. Nobody will collect and eat it, so there is no transgression of the prohibition of wanton destruction. He adds that it may be a good thing that the owners of halls do care about their time in this case, while they usually do not throw away better food (30).

Other issues

Other contemporary responsa concern diverse matters. R. Ovadia Yosef addresses the issue of laying flowers on a coffin (31). To avoid transgressing the prohibition of wanton destruction, he recommends that the communities that practice this custom – such as Egyptian Jews – use inexpensive wreaths only.

R. Hosea Rabinowitsch deals with the complaint of one agricultural settlement against another. The former claims that field irrigation by the latter through sprinkling from a sewage-contaminated reservoir is causing a strong odor and affecting their quality of life. The latter counters that stopping the irrigation will cause them serious economic loss. R. Rabinowitsch decides that, due to this potential loss, stopping the irrigation cannot be enforced; but the irrigating settlement must make an effort to minimize the nuisance (32).

R. Yosef Gavriel Backhofer assesses whether recycling is a positive commandment, and thus whether those who do not practice it are transgressing the prohibition of wanton destruction (33). He sees various sides to this issue. If all one has to do is to sort waste and bring it to a collection point close to one’s home, throwing it elsewhere might be considered destruction.

Environmental Halakha will probably develop much more in the coming decades. The most efficient way of extending Halakha in this field is by environmentally-concerned citizens’ posing questions on the subject. It is likely that there will be rabbinical authorities willing to study and answer these issues. Once some rabbinical decision-makers specialize in this field, further advancement will be made.
Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld is an international consultant specializing in business and environmental strategy to the senior ranks of multinational corporations.

1. Manfred Gerstenfeld, Judaism, Environmentalism and the Environment: Mapping and Analysis. Jerusalem: Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies/Rubin Mass, 1998.
2. R. Menachem Slae, Smoking cand Damage to Health in the Halakha. Jerusalem: Acharai, 1990, p. 36.
3. Responsa Igrot Moshe on Even Haezer 4: 18. Hebrew.
4. R. Slae, op. cit., p. 41.
5. The Jerusalem Post, June 22, 1997.
6. Responsa Ase Lecha Rav Tome Six. Tel Aviv, 1985, 58. Hebrew. 7. R. Halevi states that there are two conflicting commandments with regard to this issue: on the one hand, one must honor one’s parents and on the other, it is prohibited to “put a hindrance before a blind man.” 7.
8. Ibid., Tome Two, 1979, 8. Hebrew.
9. Responsa Maaseh Chosheew Tome Three. Institute for Science and Halacha, Jerusalem, 1997, 256-261. Hebrew.
10. Responsa Mayim Chayim, Tome Two, Tel Aviv, 1995, 50. Hebrew.
11. Ibid.
12. Responsa Seridei Esh 3:7. Hebrew.
13. Responsa Ziz Eliezer 14:68. Hebrew.
14. R. J. David Bleich, Contemporary Halakhic Problems. New York: Ktav, 1989, Vol. 3, pp. 237-250.
15. Responsa I Part 3, section 66. Hebrew.
16. Ibid. R. Yosef states that the prohibition against causing unnecessary pain to animals is based on the Torah; therefore it is stronger than the prohibition against wanton destruction and rabbinical prohibitions concerning Shabbat.
17. Ibid. He also quotes the Talmud (Bavli Avodah Zarah 18b) where R. Simon ben Pazzi comments that the verse “happy is the man who has not… taken the path of the sinners” (Psalms 1:1) refers to those who do not go to contests between wild beasts or between wild beasts and men.
18. Responsa Yabia Omer 4 on Orach Chayim 20. Hebrew.
19. Responsa Ase Lecha Rav, Tome 4, 1981, 69. Hebrew.
20. R. Bleich, op. cit., pp. 237-250.
21. I concur with this opinion from personal experience.
22. R. Bleich, op. cit., p. 246.
23. R. David Rosen. Vegetarianism: An Orthodox Jewish Perspective. In: Roberta Kaletchovsky, Rabbis and Vegetarianism: An Evolving Tradition. Marblehead, MA: Micah, 1995, p. 53.
24. R. Rosen has not laid this down in a formal halakhic decision. (Personal communication.)
25. Responsa Ase Lecha Rav, Tome 1, 1976, 20. Hebrew.
26. R. Halevi quotes the Talmud, Bavli Ta’anit 20b. Every Friday, R. Huna would send a messenger to the market to buy all the surplus vegetables remaining in the market. These would be thrown in the river. He did not give them to the poor, as they would then count on it and this, in turn, would affect market prices. He did not give them to the animals, because one should not give human food to animals. R. Huna’s reason for doing this was that, if he did not, the market vendors left with their goods would no longer bring vegetables to the market. Ibid.
27. Ibid.
28. Ibid., Tome 4, 1981, 24. Hebrew.
29. R. Yitschak Silberstein, He’arot be’inyan bal tashkhit. Tsohar, Kovets Torani (1998), pp. 48-75. Hebrew.
30. Ibid, pp. 50-52
31. Responsa Yabia Omer Part 3, section 24. Hebrew.
32. R. Hosea Rabinowitsch, Middat ha’Acharayut leNezek Ekologi beHalakha. Techumin 7. Alon Shevut: Tsomet, 1986, pp. 403-409. Hebrew.
33. R. Yosef Gavriel Backhofer, HaMichzur beHalakha. Techumin 16. Alon Shevut: Tsomet, 1996,