Connecting the Profound: Jewish Passover and the Environment

Tomorrow night the Jewish holiday of Passover begins. The holiday marks the time when the Israelities left Egypt as slaves, and entered the land of Israel (Canaan) as free people.

Today Jews around the world are working vigorously right now to remove each and every last speck of hametz (leaven) in their homes, and most see it as a time to do some spiritual housecleaning as well.

Green Prophet is always looking to religious sources for answering the complex challenges that the world faces today in the green movement. And here in the Middle East, the time is ripe for an environmental revolution too.

Here I dig up an old interview from 2007, on the green connection to Judaism’s Passover and the environment. The interview is with Rabbi Yehudah Leo Levi, a physicist, rabbi and author who lives in Jerusalem.

Q: How is Passover connected to the environment?

A: The connection between Passover and the environment is somewhat indirect, but extremely profound. According to the Torah (Jewish tradition), one central purpose of the creation of the human being was to complete the development the world God had created in His wisdom.

The human being was put into the wonderful Garden of Eden, not, primarily, to enjoy its delicious fruits, but rather “to serve it and guard it” (Genesis 2:15). Or, in the words of the Midrash: “When God created Adam, he took him to survey all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him: ‘See My works, how pleasant and praiseworthy they are… be careful not to spoil and ruin My world. For, if you spoil, there is no one to repair after you” (Qoheleth Rabba 7:13).

In other words, the human being is to be a caretaker, not owner, of the world.

Subsequently mankind forgot this message and turned to paganism, serving the powers of nature instead of their Creator. Thus they travelled on a path of self-destruction. To save humanity, God chose Abraham to become the progenitor of a nation which was to bring God’s message to humanity. That nation was formed on the night of the first Passover for the explicit purpose of teaching mankind what God wants of them, which is primarily the development of the world, physically, socially, and spiritually. Thus, in a sense, Passover commemorates the creation of the mentors, who were to make mankind aware of their duty to care for their environment.

Q: What is the spiritual message of Passover

A: Because of His concern for a faltering humanity, God “created”, on Passover night, a new nation (Israel) to become a “lighthouse” to humanity.

Q: What are some Jewish traditions in general that show the faith is concerned with protecting the environment

A: Judaism commands the preservation of the environment by prohibiting its wasteful utilization.

Even during war, which may occasionally be forced on the Jewish people, they are forbidden to cut down fruit trees – even their enemies’ (Deuteronomy 20:19).

Jewish tradition expands this to forbid unnecessary destruction of all elements of the environment (Maimonides, Melakhim 6:10); even wasteful use of fuel is explicitly forbidden (Babyl. Talmud, Shabbath 67b).

Another interesting example is the concern lest discomfort be caused to the neighbor. Especially sources of excessive smoke, unpleasant odors, dust, and vibrations are forbidden, without the permission of the neighbors (Shulchan ‘Arukh, Choshen Mishpat 155:36). The reader will find there over a hundred paragraphs listing such prohibitions.

A third illustration is the Torah’s concern for proper city-planning. It demands a “green belt,” about a kilometer wide around each city, a belt which may not be used for building. If you need more housing, start a new city. (Cf. Numbers 35 & Rabbi S.R. Hirsch’s commentary to Leviticus 25:34, at length.)

For more reading:

1. Torah & Science – Their Interplay in the World Scheme, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem & Nanuet, NY, 2006; chap. 3.
2. Facing Current Challenges – Essays on Judaism, Lambda, Brooklyn, NY, 1998; Essay 36.


Rabbi Levi’s bio:
I grew up in New York. There I got my academic degrees: B.E.E., M.Sc., Ph.D. (Physics), my Rabbinic ordination and a professorship at City College. In 1970 I moved to Israel to set up the Physics/Electro-Optics Dept. at the Jerusalem College of Technology – the second such department in the world. (I had to write the text-book myself; it was eventually published by Wiley in N.Y.)

Ten years later, I was appointed Rector there. Since my retirement in 1991, I am continuing bi-weekly lectures there, primarily in Judaism. I also give a weekly lecture at the Jerusalem Academy of Jewish Studies.

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