Were Israelites the First True Environmentalists?

fugee friday glean market tel aviv environment photo
(Modern-day Israelites “glean” at a Tel Aviv market to help feed African refugees in Israel.)

Chapter 25 of the biblical Book of Leviticus relates how God instructed the Children of Israel on how to make of most out of the land when growing crops, and how to care for livestock, and for servants who worked on the land.

These instructions, or laws as many theologians refer to them, were given to a people who were wandering in the wilderness of Sinai – or Arabia, depending on which interpretation one wants to follow – for 40 years, and in conditions too harsh to do much farming – except in some locations such as the Oasis of Paran (now known a Firan).

But in reality, these laws were meant to be followed not just during their wandering, but for centuries – millennium to follow, make a lot of sense, especially from an environmental and hygienic standpoint.

In regards to farming, the Israelites were instructed to let their lands lie fallow one year in every 7 year period. No crops could be grown on the seventh year which God considers to be “a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land.”

Although crops that grew on their own during this period could be eaten, they could not be stored away for future use: they had to be eaten on the spot. People could not buy crops “from thy neighbor” either, unless they had been grown prior to the period now known as “shmitah.”

In addition to the laws of shmitah which we’ve spelled out here, a “Jubilee” year of one in 50 was proclaimed which the people could not “sow, neither reap that which growth of itself in it, nor gather the grapes in it of the undressed vines.”

In addition, during a Jubilee year, all land is supposed to revert back to its rightful owner, slaves and their families were to be emancipated, and all debts were to be cancelled. The Jubilee year was considered especially holy since “all the land belongs to God.”

Laws pertaining to setting aside a portion for the poor were also given, including setting aside a corner of a field for the poor, as well as giving the tenth animal born as food for the poor. This giving of the tenth portion of crops of livestock is what later became known as tithing.

These laws also instructed that neither man nor beast were to work on the day of rest, otherwise known as a Sabbath Day of rest; which also referred to religious holidays and not just the 7th day of the week.

Times have changed, and nowadays, these laws are not followed as closely, except by observant Jews. Even they have found a way to go around the Law of Shmitah by purchasing fruits and vegetable produce from non-Jews. Even some kibbutzim and other agricultural communities in Israel have found a loophole by “selling” their land to a non-Jew during the Shmitah or Jubilee year.

But despite these deviations, the logic behind these laws clearly point out to an environmental message of letting land and animals rest for a while. So by taking this fact into account, it’s easy to see that ideas concerning protecting the environment are nothing new – they’ve been around a long, long time.

More on the environment and Jewish customs:
Eco Rabbi Explores Passover Cleaning
Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Shmittah
The Sabbatical Year and Its Connection to the Environment
Tree Planting During the Shmittah Year

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