KATCHEN: The Pandemic, the Environment and Judaism

Elizabeth Katchen


There is no doubt that the COVID pandemic has been devastating in terms of health, social isolation, and the economy the world over. Despite this incredibly challenging time, some people have been given reason to smile. This bright outlook can perhaps be credited to taking a step back, taking stock of what’s really important, and taking some deep breaths – in many cases of cleaner air.

A decline in air travel has resulted in a decrease of 17 percent in daily global emissions, according to Nature Climate Change, and the waters are running clear in Venice’s canals due to the lockdown in Italy. However, the question is, will these benefits to the environment prevail or will the world fall back into old patterns and wipe out any gains?

Judaism played a pioneering role in protecting the environment. There are many sources dating to biblical times in which Judaism prioritizes land, animals, nature and sustainability. In one example, the concept of Tza’ar Ba’alei Chaim conveys the value of kindness to animals through preventing or relieving an animal’s pain. While this value is expressed in many different sources in the Torah, some of particular note can be found in Shemot and Devarim. In Shemot, the Torah tells us that if one sees an enemy’s donkey struggling under a load that is too heavy, one is obligated to help the animal.

In Devarim, the Torah instructs that if a person sees a friend’s donkey or ox fallen on the road, one is not allowed to ignore the animal, but rather should help it. The point in both situations is to teach us that regardless to whom the animal belongs – whether your best friend or worst enemy – the key is to help the animal.

Another poignant example of Judaism’s regard for the Earth is shmita, or the Sabbatical Year. This is a year of rest for the land which takes place every seven years in Israel. In the seventh year, the fields are not harvested. There are many benefits to this break in working the land, including an opportunity to spiritually reconnect with it and to give thought to our actions affecting the environment. Perhaps it may make sense to buy locally, to cut back on meat consumption, and to add more organic items to our groceries. By giving the land a rest, we too can pause and reflect on our relationship with the Earth.

Among the myriad of other sources highlighting Judaism’s prioritization of the environment is the law forbidding the cutting down of fruit bearing trees, or Bal Taschit (thou shall not destroy). In this case, the Talmud explains that one may not chop down a fruit-bearing tree except in particular circumstances, such as when the tree damages other plants. This law emphasizes preventing waste and preserving that which is valuable.

In the Jewish world, there are some wonderful organizations prioritizing the environment including the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and Shoresh. These institutions are leading the way with eco-friendly innovations. During the hectic rat race of life, it is easy to grab what is quick, convenient, and disposable. It is my hope that humanity’s pause gives rise to more mindful choices as we gradually reset to a new normal. 

Elizabeth Katchen
Elizabeth Katchen

Elizabeth Katchen was born and raised in Victoria, B.C. and cares deeply about animals, the environment and the Jewish community. She is the former editor of FutureTense magazine, a national Jewish student publication, and a past freelance contributor to the Canadian Jewish News. Elizabeth is executive assistant to the programs department at Toronto’s Schwartz/Reisman Centre and Prosserman JCC.