Sustainable Development

by Rabbi Akiva Wolff

Development of natural resources is a necessary and desirable aspect of our existence in this world. Development contributes greatly to human society by providing needed goods and services, improving the economy, increasing employment and generally improving our quality of life.

Not all development, however, is beneficial or desirable. Improper development is creating an environmental crisis in Israel and throughout much of the world today.

Not only is improper development harmful to the current generation, but development activities that use up non-renewable resources or that damage or destroy environmental amenities are stealing from future generations as well. Is it fair and ethical to deprive future generations of clean air, clean water, recreation activities, etc. for the sake of a higher standard of living today? How do we decide such issues in an intelligent and equitable manner?

The growing awareness of the negative effects of development on current and future generations has led to a great interest in what is currently called “sustainability”. First popularized in late 1980’s, the words “sustainability” and “sustainable development” have become part of the popular lexicon over the past decade.

Sustainable development has been defined as development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Exactly what this means is difficult to define in real terms.

Jewish Approach to “sustainable development”

While the terms “sustainability” and “sustainable development” are of recent vintage, the underlying concepts have been part of Jewish belief for millennia, as the following sources illustrate.

The first source is a midrash, going back to the first millenium of the common era:

When G-d created the first Man he took him and showed him all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him “See my works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are. And everything that I created, I created it for you. Be careful not to spoil or destroy my world – for if you do, there will be nobody to repair it after you

This midrash shows remarkable foresight – having been recorded long before mankind had the technological prowess to seriously impact the entire planet. As this midrash illustrates, Judaism believes that the natural world was created for man’s benefit, and that, concurrently, man must exercise self-restraint in his exploitation of these resources.

The second source, from the Talmudic tractate Ta’anit, describes the story of Honi hama’agal (Honi the circle maker):

One day as Honi was walking along he saw a man planting a carob tree. Honi asked him “how many years until it will bear fruit? The man answered back “not for seventy years”. Honi asked him, “do you really believe you’ll live another seventy years? The man answered back, ” I found this world provided with carob trees, and as my ancestors planted them for me, so I too plant them for my descendants”

The story of Honi illustrates what would today be called “sustainable” thinking – of acting to provide for the welfare of future generations.

A third and later source is the Biblical commentary of Rabbi Don Isaac, known as the Abravanel, who lived in 15th century Spain. The Abravanel writes:

And this is the meaning of “in order that you may fare well and have a good life” – this commandment is given not for the sake of the animal world but rather so that it shall be good for humankind when creation is perpetuated so that one will be able to partake of it again in the future. This too, is the meaning of “and you will have a lengthy life,” namely, because you are destined to live for many years on this earth, you are reliant upon creation perpetuating itself so that you will always have sufficient food.

Sustainability in practice

The concept of sustainability enjoys wide acceptance as an ideal. However, because it is difficult to define in real terms and because it stands contrary to the prevailing tide of consumerism, it has had little practical effect in most of the world.

On the other hand, sustainable practices have been an integral part of Jewish law for thousands of years, as the following examples illustrate:

1. Sabbath and the Sabbatical year

Our continuous exploitation of nature places heavy stress on natural resources, lessening their well-being and vitality, and ultimately our own. Periodic abstention from the exploitation of nature refreshes our appreciation of the natural world and allows the natural resources themselves to rejuvenate and revitalize.

In Jewish law, observing the Sabbath requires that we refrain from the exploitation of nature one day out of every seven. One year out of every seven is the Sabbatical year, which requires abstaining from virtually all agricultural activity, and giving the land the opportunity to rest and rejuvenate

2. Prohibition against economic activity that is destructive to the environment

In Talmudic times, raising of sheep and goats was considered to be a very profitable business. Unfortunately, sheep and goats are also very destructive to the environment in the dry climate of the Middle East. Jewish law forbid the raising of sheep and goats in settled parts of the land of Israel because of their destructive effects on the environment. The prohibition of raising sheep and goats in the land of Israel can be seen as a paradigm for addressing inappropriate development that yields great profit at the expense of extensive long-term ecological damage.

3. Land use planning

According to Jewish law, cities in ancient Israel were to be surrounded by an open natural area known as a migrash. The migrash was situated outside of the city walls and inside of the agricultural fields, upon which most of the economy depended. Each city, therefore, consisted of a combination of built area – for housing and light industry, migrash – a surrounding natural area free of building or agriculture, and agricultural fields.

No doubt there were then, as there are today, conflicting pressures in land-use decisions. More land for building could mean more and cheaper housing, and more industry. More land for agriculture could mean more plentiful and less expensive food and clothing and more jobs. More open natural land could mean more peace of mind and a healthier environment.

The balance between each of these components had to be maintained – according to most opinions, the zoning couldn’t be changed.

It was understood that there needs to be a proper balance between urban-residential area for people to live and work, agricultural area for growing food and fiber, and open natural area for aesthetic and environmental purposes. All three of these combine, in proper balance, to produce appropriate and sustainable settlement of the land.

Protection of valuable resources

Finally, Jewish law protects valuable resources from waste or unnecessary destruction. The commandment of bal tashkhit - do not destroy – prohibits the needless destruction of any resources that may be of benefit. Among the examples listed in Jewish sources are the excessive use of fuel or food, burying the dead in expensive garments, or even spending more money than necessary.

Taken together, these laws helped to create a sustainable society and can be used as examples for business and society today.


Rabbi Akiva Wolff is a lecturer at the Jerusalem College of Technology – Machon Lev. He directs the Center for Business Ethics’ Judaism and the Environment unit, which researches Torah perspectives and solutions to environmental problems. He is also writing a book on the subject.