Jewish Sources on the Environment and Living Creatures

Selections from A Garden of Choice Fruits: 200 Classic Jewish Quotes on Human Beings and the Environment, edited and designed by Rabbi David E. Stein, Wyncote, PA: Shomrei Adamah/Keepers of the Earth, 1991.  Reprinted from The Animals’ Lawsuit Against Humanity.

On Hesed (Loving kindness) and Creation

God’s compassion extends to all of Creation.

Psalm 145:9
Land of Israel


Our Rabbis taught: Even those things that you may regard as completely superfluous to Creation-such as fleas, gnats, and flies-even they too were included in Creation; and God’s purpose is carried out through everything-even through a snake, a scorpion, a gnat, or a frog.

Midrash Genesis Rabbah, 10:7
Land of Israel, c. 400 CE


What is the way that will lead to the proper love and fear of God?  When you contemplate God’s great, wondrous works and creatures and from them obtain a glimpse of divine wisdom, incomparable and infinite, you will straightway love God, praise God, glorify and long with an exceeding longing to know God’s great name, even as David said, Like a deer crying for water/My soul cries for You, O God/My soul thirsts for God, the living God (Psalms 42:2-3). And you who ponder these matters will recoil, frightened with the creation of being a small creature, lowly and obscure… And so David (also) said: When I behold Your heavens, the work of Your fingers/The moon and stars that You have set in place/What is humankind that You are mindful of it? (Psalm 8:4-5)

Mishneh Torah,
Book of Knowledge, 2:2
Rambam (Rabbi Moses Maimonides)
Egypt, 1135-1204 CE


Our task must be to free ourselves…by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.

Albert Einstein
Germany/ America
20th C.


One glorious chain of love, of giving and receiving, unites all living things. All things exist in continuous reciprocal activity-one for All, All for one. None has power, or means, for itself; each receives only in order to give, and gives in order to receive, and finds therein the fulfillment of the purpose of its existence: HaShem (YHWH / the Lord). “Love,” say the Sages, “love that supports and is supported in turn. That is the character of the Universe.”

The Nineteen Letters,
Third letter (end)
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch
Germany, 1808-1888

Against Afflicting Animals (Tsaar  Baalei Hayyim)

Rav Judah said that Rav said: A person is forbidden to eat before the domesticated animals have been given food, for Scripture (first) says: I will provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and only then it says: and you shall eat your fill (Deuteronomy 11:15).

Talmud of Babylonia,
Berakhot 40a; Gittin 62a
200-600 CE


The sufferings of Rabbi (Judah the Patriarch) came to him because of a certain incident and left in the same way. What was the incident that led to his suffering? Once a calf was being taken to slaughter when it broke away, hid its head under Rabbi’s robes, and bellowed (in terror). Rabbi said, “Go! For this is why you were created!” Then they said in heaven, “Since he showed no compassion, let us bring suffering upon him.” And how did Rabbi’s suffering depart? One day a slave was sweeping the house and was about to sweep away some young weasels. “Leave them alone!” Rabbi said. “It is written: God’s compassion extends to all of Creation. Then they said in heaven, “Since he has shown compassion, let us be compassionate with him.”

Babylonian Talmud,
Baba Metzia, 85a
200-600 CE


Scripture placed domestic and wild animals on a par with humans with regard to food, and did not permit humans to kill any creature and eat its flesh; rather, all of them alike were to eat vegetation. But later, from the time of Noah’s children, God permitted people and animals to eat meat.

Rashi (Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac)
Commentary to Genesis 1:29-31
France, 1040 – 1105 CE


Your compassion should encompass all creatures, not destroying or despising them, for Wisdom on high encompasses all created things-minerals, plants, animals, and human beings! This is the reason behind the Rabbis warning us about lack of respect for our sources of food (TB, Berakhot 50b). Because Wisdom on high disrespects nothing-everything being derived from there, as it is written: You have made them all via Wisdom (Psalms 104.24). It is fitting that our compassion should also take in all God’s works…Thus you should not uproot anything that grows, nor kill any living thing unless it is needed (for food). And you should choose a quick and easy death for them, with a knife carefully inspected, to have compassion on them as far as possible.  To sum up: The principle of Wisdom is that love should be extended to everything that exists, so that you do not harm them but rather elevate them ever higher, from plant to animal and from animal to human. For only then it is permitted to uproot the plant or to kill the beast, to transform a loss into a gain.

Tomer Devorah 3 (end)
Rabbi Moses Cordovero
Land of Israel, 1522-1570


One rabbinic legal opinion has it that one should not recite a blessing over (new) shoes or clothes made of leather, for the animal might have been killed solely to produce this item and, as the verse says, “God’s compassion extends to all of Creation”. Now such reasoning is weak and inconclusive, yet many are careful not to say the blessing.

Gloss to Rabbi Joseph Karo’s Opinion
Rabbi Moses Isserles
Poland, d. 1572


The law against afflicting animals (with pain and suffering) applies in every case, except where an animal is slaughtered outright or killed for a material benefit to human beings.

Nodah b’Yehudah, Yoreh Deah,
second series, 10
Rabbi Ezekiel Landau
Bohemia, 1713-1793

Do Not Destroy (Bal Tashkhit)

 When you besiege a city for a long time-making war against it in order to take it-you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them. You may eat from them, but you must not cut them down! Are trees of the field human beings to withdraw before you into the besieged city? Only trees that you know are not food-bearing you may destroy and cut down in order to build siege-works …

Deuteronomy 20:19-20
Land of Israel


Not only one who cuts down food trees, but also one who smashes household goods, tears clothes, demolishes a building, stops up a spring, or destroys food on purpose violates the command: “You must not destroy. Such a person is administered a disciplinary beating.

Mishneh Torah, Book of Judges,
Laws of Kings and Wars, 6:10
Rambam (Rabbi Moses Maimonides)
Egypt, 1135-1204


The prohibition of purposeless destruction of food trees around a besieged city is only to be taken as an example of general wastefulness. Under the concept of bal tash-chit (You must not destroy), the purposeless destruction of anything at all is taken to be forbidden, so that our text becomes the most comprehensive warning to human beings not to misuse the position that God has given them as master of the world and its matter by capricious, passionate, or merely thoughtless wasteful destruction of anything on earth.

Horeb: Essays on Israel’s “Duties” in the Diaspora Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch
Germany, 1837

Repair of the World (Tikkun Olam)

God said, “I will make humankind in My image, after My likeness. They shall rule… the whole earth…” (Genesis 1:28) Rabbi Hanina said: “If humankind merits it, God says ‘rule!’; but if humankind does not merit it, God says ‘Let them (the animals) rule!”‘

Midrash Genesis Rabbah 8:12
Land of Israel, c. 400 CE


Said Dov Baer, the Preacher of Mezhirech  (Ukraine): Your kind deeds are used by God as seed for the planting of trees in the Garden of Eden. Thus, each of you creates your own Paradise.

Esser Orot (Ten Lights)
Ukraine, d. 1772

When God created the first human beings, God led them around the Garden of Eden and said: “Look at My works! See how beautiful they are-how excellent! For you sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.”

Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabbah 1 on Ecclesiastes 7:13
C. 800 CE