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It’s Not Yours!


“Recycle, Reduce & Reuse” has deep roots in Jewish tradition. Even before Greenpeace came on the scene, the Torah had already charted out an environmental ethic. It’s all in this verse in Deuteronomy (20:19):

“When you besiege a city for many days to wage war against it to capture it, you shall not destroy its trees.”

The rabbis of the Talmud explained, “If during times of war we are forbidden to cut down our enemies’ trees, then we certainly may not destroy productive trees in times of peace.” And it doesn’t stop with trees. Destroying or ruining foods, clothes, dishes, plants, springs of water, or anything else that could be of benefit to someone is out of bounds, even if they have no owner.

“But it’s mine!” a wannabe vase smasher yelps. “Why can’t I do whatever I want with my own property?”Nevertheless, this is not preservation for the sake of preservation. When there is no way to fix or build except by destroying something along the way, then destroying is really building. There are some cases where trees may be cut down. (Consult a competent orthodox rabbi for guidance on the specifics.)

But there are limits to what is considered productive destruction. For example, breaking a crystal vase to demonstrate to your children how upset you are with their naughty behavior is not considered productive for these purposes.

“But it's mine!” a wannabe vase smasher might yelp. “Why can’t I do whatever I want with my own property?”

The answer, according to the Torah, is that it isn’t really your property. You didn’t create it. Whatever you own was given to you with a divine purpose. It isn’t yours to squander—it’s in your possession to use for the good. All that G‑d made in His world, the sages said, He created for His glory.

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Anonymous Chicago September 12, 2016

Maybe there's more than one slogan? Re-cycle, Re-use, Re-purpose is what I've seen/heard. (Not sure of the order. . .) Reply

Anonymous NY February 17, 2015

then why are.we so materialistic? especially in the northeastern part of USA Reply

Olga Rosanoff Florida. via December 4, 2014

Never knew about the Deuteronomy ...... But, I too believe that the nature is created with a purpose and I see in the's our to protected and keep this wonderful earth, place in which you live clean and with a purpose . Reply

Aviva Jerusalem August 30, 2014

Hooray! Hooray! Sofia and Reuven have come up with something else against Orthodox Jews. But, by the way, prejudice ans hatred is really the main cause of pollution of the environment.

And Rabbi Brownstein, re: your answer to Soria and Rueven, how many secular Jews and goyim are using disposable diapers ? None, I guess. Seems you really believe that the whole entire disposable diaper and plates industry is entirely supported by the Orthodox community. Reply

Yohanon Miami FL USA August 29, 2014

3 for 1 & honoring Shabat 1. I am looking at a tissue box that states: "We plant 3 trees for every one we cut down". Good business, good PR, & good environmental sense.
2. IMO, while use of disposable dishes on Shabat & haggim indeed reduces post-Shabat clean-up, real "china" - or using the best dishes available - enhances Shabat. (I help with the dishes so clean-up is not a one-person job.)
Aside: We traveled from Israel to the U.S. w/a 10-month old and his cloth diapers. The dirty diapers were placed in a shoulder bag. On arrival Customs wanted to check our luggage; the agent asked "What' in the shoulder bag." Dirty diapers. "Open the bag." We did; he caught a whiff of dirty diapers and we quickly were waved through Customs. This was c 1979 @ Miami (FL) International (MIA). Reply

Anonymous BK August 28, 2014

Great article. Thank you for the article. Not only do I think we can reuse, reduce, and recycle, but we can also take all the trash and debris that we have made all around, and rebuild things out of it, and in the process generate re-usable energy. Reply

Shoshana Jerusalem April 30, 2013

to sofia and Reuven While I fully understand and appreciate your concern for the environment, I don't think that you have to be overly concerned about the paper plates and disposable diapers of what amounts to a handful of Orthodox Jews. Jews comprise, if I'm not mistaken, something like 1% of the world population? And how many are Orthodox? And not all Orthodox Jews uses paper plates on Shabbos, either.

But even if we all did, believe me, that a big Jewish family, ( even with all its paper plates and "all those children" in their disposable diapers, enjoying their Shabbos meals in a well lit and air-conditioned home), adds so much beauty and holiness and happiness and blessings to the environment, and does so much for Tikun Olam, and all of this blessing benefits all of us, and even if we are unaware of this fact, we are all of us the better for it.

So when you see a Jewish mother with her ten precious children, having more time to share with them because of the use of disposables, rejoice! Reply

Rabbi Shmary Brownstein April 30, 2013

To Sophia Please see what I responded to Reuven. As far as diapers are concerned, one who has used cloth diapers will appreciate why mothers of many children should not be made to feel bad about using disposable ones. Certainly they may use cloth diapers, and I know of some who do. Reply

Rabbi Shmary Brownstein April 30, 2013

To Reuven You make a good point, and that is indeed the intention of articles like these, to put forward the notion that there is a Torah ideal of conservation. The only caveat is that when a Jew considers something a mitzvah, it becomes inviolable (except in life and death situations). To outlaw the use of disposable goods or to establish limits for the use of cars could result in real inconvenience or greater expenses for families that can't afford it, and which may be large. Parents in such a situation may need to opt for the less environmentally conscientious route in order to get things done quickly and efficiently. However, it is certainly within the Torah ideal to be careful with our resources, especially when that might be cheaper as well. Hopefully you can provide a voice to help bring more awareness where it is needed. Reply

anonymous Jerusalem April 29, 2013

Thank G-d and may they continue to increase, we have "all those kids".

But environmental things even out. For instance, air pollution from cars. In my building in a chareidi section of Jerusalem we have 24 families, and only one of them has a car. In the entire community of 14 buildings there are maybe one hundred cars. Whereas the average secular family with their 2.3 children and a dog, has at least two cars and maybe more.

So stop complaining about our beautiful Shabbats and our homes that are filled with "all those kids", may we be fruitful and multiply more and more. Reply

sophia April 22, 2013

It continually surprises me when Orthodox Judaism makes claim to environmentalism. Your use of paper and plastic on Shabbat and other holidays, and the amount of trash produced is incredible. I asked and got the answer, it is too much trouble. And what about plastic throw away diapers for all those kids. What a great business it could be for a Jewish person to run a diaper service, like other environmentalists use. etc. Reply

Reuven April 22, 2013

I wish it were so that we were concerned about trees! It has always astounded me how most Orthodox households seem to have no environmental awareness or concern. Having a shabbos meal with non-disposable tablecloths, napkins, tableware is very unusual. Most think nothing of keeping lights, air conditioners, etc. on all shabbos and yom tov. There is, within our communities, almost no concern about petroleum use except cost, even though every time you fill your tank you put a dollar in the pocket of terrorists.

Some of it is ignorance, I suppose. Some of it is political ideology: that conservation seems a Democratic agenda and resource exploitation Republican. Some of it is the idea that HaShem put these things on earth for us to use. Perhaps it is just that I am a returnee to observant Judaism and developed many of my ideas of manners outside of the observant world.

Regardless, it is very frustrating. I hope these exploitative attitudes change soon. Reply

Yael taiwan, Taiwan July 27, 2011

to differenciate a Halacha and a right thing to do To some of the readers who disagree with the cutting down of trees for certain "human excuses", I want to tell you that a Halacha just tells you what is allowed and what is not allowed, but what is allowed doesn't mean that it is the right thing to do at all places and all times. We jews are taking the things into a higher standar than just to fit a halacha. Chazal said that a person can be a evil when whatever he does is according to halacha. The fact is, everything that has life we should treasure it, even a tree or a plant. We should try to avoid cutting down trees if they can be moved and replant somewhere else. So stop feeling bad each time when a halacha doesn't fit what your heart goes. Think. Halacha is a dry law. And WE are the one to make this law alive. Reply

Shimon Riak Adelaide, Australia July 26, 2011

Nothing belongs to us...It all belongs to the King A very well thought, written article. If we all think and behave as the Torah commands us we will all know how to appropriately put to use every dollar we earn. In a world where conscience no longer matters we as humans do think that it isn't our responsibility to care for the poor. We waste so much and yet someone on this same planet has virtually nothing to call his/hers! In doing this we are actually claiming that we own it all. Never!!!!!!!!! The world will be blessed if we only adhere to the dictates of the Torah. Once again, thank you for the article. Reply

Anonymous July 26, 2011

use of disposable plates It saves a lot of water Reply

H.A. Arnevet Miami, FL July 26, 2011

Cutting trees First, the prohibition to cutting trees during time of war applies only to fruit trees.

Second, David Pinto: (a) have you evidence that Jews cut down legally planted fruit (olive) trees and (b) is there no condemnation of the Arabs cutting down trees planted in Israel? (Debating the legitimacy of "Palestine" or comparing trees to human life is beyond the scope of this site). Reply

Alyssa Freeman Richmond, VA July 24, 2011

pollution and destruction for growth and suppose a mountain is in the way of a new road or the mountain top is in the way of more coal for heating? Is it ok to destroy the mountain and ruin the watershed? Is it ok to cut down a grove of trees to build yet another shopping mall across the way from three other shopping malls? How about conducting tests of any kind in an environmentally sensitive area? Is it ok then to hurt the environment in the naem of progress? If these are the only ways the tasks con be accomplished, does that make it productive destruction? It seems to me that the term "productive destruction" could be used to justify a lot of destructive business practicces. Reply

Laura Ellen Truelove Sewanee, TN, USA August 25, 2009

Gratitude and Respect for All Gifts To appreciate everything that has been given to us, health, children, jobs, homes, friends, etc. and to care for all our possessions with gratitude and respect seems to be one way we thank G-d as the giver of all gifts. As we age, we come to realize how little possessions matter and how important is the beauty and conservation of nature and the nurturing of relationships, especially with G-d. What a joy to give possessions to others who need them so we can be more free to enjoy what is free: the beauty of nature and porch sits with friends and neighbors! Reply

alice jena richmond Hill, N.Y., USA July 21, 2009

wastefulness This has been on my mind my entire life, but especially this summer. The neighbor across the street from me, a non-Jew, recently had a huge, Evergreen tree cut down from the front of her home. It was healthy, housed many birds, and was at least two hundred years old. Her excuse was that the roots had pushed up a few bricks next to her walk. The bricks could easily been reset, and the roots trimmed. So far the bricks are still pushed up, and the tree is long gone. Every time that I look across the street my heart aches for the destruction of the magnificent creation of G-d.
Regarding the article, it has always been one of my favorite Torah portions. I do not believe one should destroy a tree because it blocks a window. A tree may be trimmed, and still thrive. If a home's foundation is being harmed by a tree's roots, that is an understandable reason to remove it. But what a pity to ever destroy any life that was created by the most Wonderful Power that we all love. Reply

Carmen July 21, 2009

Jacob also taught that : “He remained for the sake of some small jars he had left behind" Reply

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