Protection of the Environment, Protection of Ourselves

by Rabbi Zecharyah Tzvi Goldman

Rabbi Zecharyah Tzvi Goldman is rabbi of the Vermont Street Shul in Portland, Oregon. He is the founder and rabbinic administrator of EarthKosher, a kosher certification agency that exclusively certifies health food and alternative medicine companies. The following is an edited halakhic responsa from Judaism and the New Age: Halakhic Perspectives.


Tu b’Shevat is a time when we express our appreciation for the bounty of Hashem’s creation through the fruits of trees. Today, some fruits and other food products are being threatened and, possibly, made unhealthful through practices that also damage the environment. What is the halachic response regarding the need to protect one’s health? For example, some foods, including non-organic foods, animal foods and dairy products with hormones and antibiotics in them, and genetically-engineered foods, may be considered to be unhealthful. Is there an obligation not to eat these foods, or to avoid unhealthful environmental practices that may cause damage to our health?

According to the majority of later Halakhic authorities[1] and some early Halakhic authorities[2] the following two verses in the Torah, “Only take heed and watch yourself very carefully…” Devarim 4:9 and “Watch yourselves very carefully…” Devarim 4:15 are the source for a negative[3] Torah commandment regarding the protection of one’s life from life-threatening circumstances, things and people. According to one such early authority, the Sefer Hachinuch[4], this commandment extends not only to the obligation to protect oneself from things that can end one’s life but as well to things that can damage one’s life and body.

We will now examine two quite different Talmudic precedents as further expressions of the Torah law to protect oneself from damage to one’s life and body.

“Our Rabbis taught: there was an incident with a pious Jew, that he was praying on the road. A ruler came and greeted him and he did not respond to his greeting. The ruler waited till he finished praying, and after he finished praying, he said to him, ’Empty one! Is it not written in your Torah, ’Only take heed and watch yourself very carefully’? Is it not further written, ’Watch yourselves very carefully’? When I greeted you why did you not respond to my greeting? If I  would have chopped off your head with a sword, who would demand an accounting of your life from me?’” Talmud Bavli Berachot 32B

In Mesechet Shavout 36A we have a source that confirms that we can rely on the gentile rulers quotations and understanding of Torah verses!
“Rabbi Yannai says, all agree [that if a person curses himself he transgresses a negative Torah commandment] as it is written, ’Only take heed and watch yourselves very carefully.’”

The sages thus had a tradition that these verses quoted by the gentile ruler applied to the law of protecting one’s life.

When one examines carefully the matters that the sages of blessed memory forbade, one finds that an inordinate amount of these prohibitions are concerned with our ingestion of poison from a snake or other harmful creatures. In the Rambam[5] one will find no less than 15 Halakhot that touch on the subject of what one may or may not drink or eat in regards to the concern that poison may be found therein.

Likewise, in the Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 427:9-10, we read,
”Many things the sages forbade because they posed a danger to human life…Whoever is not mindful of them and those like them and says, ‘I will endanger myself and what is this to others, or I am not stringent regarding this’ [the rabbinical court would] lash him with lashes of rebelliousness.”

In a more contemporary vein, the Polish 19th-20th century Lomzha Rav in his Halakhic work of responsas entitled Divrie Malchiel 2:53 states, “That certainly it is forbidden to eat anything that leads to any disease because of ‘Watch yourselves very carefully’.”

With these precedents in mind, we need to now inquire regarding issues that pertain to our own generation, such as pesticides, hormones, and genetically-engineered foods.

It certainly seems to this author, given all the above and my limited knowledge of ecology and alternative medicine, to be within the spirit of Torah to be utterly wary of such foods. However, the possibility within Halakha to forbid them outright is far from simple or realistic for the time being. The reasons this is the case are:

1. The damage done is neither severe nor immediate.
2. There are other factors in the disease process.

3. There are many establishment medical authorities who deny or de-emphasize the damaging capacity of these foods.

Given that what is under consideration of prohibition does not fit the classical rabbinical precedent of poison, it would far from easy to forbid these foods. This based on the precedent that Halakha makes available regarding danger or damage to human life. In essence, we cannot forbid a person something of such relatively minute or unproven negative impact. This would be the Halakhic reasoning against any general Halakhic rulings in support of an Eco-Kosher diet mandatory on the Torah observant Jewish people.

However, I believe it could be said that if one reasonably believes based on scientific evidence and medical opinion, as the author does, that many of these foods are dangerous or even potentially so (certainly they may be dangerous if these foods become part of one’s lifestyle and regular eating patterns)., then it seems quite clear from all the precedents cited above that one would be under the divine calling (if not obligation) to stay away from them.

In the words of a prominent Rishon the Ravad,[6] ”It is not necessary to say that a man should guard himself from foods that he recognizes damage him. For the man who eats things that damage him and he is able to be without them, behold he rebelliously sins with his body and with his soul. For he goes after his desire and he does not concern himself with the loss of his body and this is the pathway of the Evil Inclination and the advice of fools, to turn him away from the path of life to the path of death.”

In Halakha, there is a term that is employed when a sage does not find it appropriate to forbid something to the public although he senses that there is cause for concern. That term is Ba’al Nefesh Yachmir – in translation “A master of the spirit will be stringent.” In a more contemporary translation this term would read, “A sensitive and disciplined soul will be mindful.” I believe that for now this is the most fitting Halakhic response to the dangerous, corrupt and ignorant times we live in.

Tu b’Shevat is an appropriate time for us to consider the food that we are eating, the health consequences of our environmental choices, and whether we might consider improving our own health and protecting the environment by choosing more healthful foods, such as organic fruits and vegetables.

For those that choose to be stringent, may blessing come upon them and may they be blessed to educate and enlighten our people regarding the dangers that they so pervasively stumble in.


This article is printed as part of the Tu b’Shevat Learning Campaign, sponsored by Canfei Nesharim, an organization that is educating the Orthodox community about the importance of protecting the environment. 



[1]      This is the conclusion of Harav Yosef Lerner Shlita author of the acclaimed work Shmirat Haguf Ve’Hanefesh. There he quotes the Tevuot Shor Siman 13:2 “Whoever transgresses the words of the sages that they said were matters of danger transgresses a Torah prohibition.” Also see Levush Iyr Shushan Siman 426:11, Nodah Be’Yehudah Mahedurah Kama Siman 10, Chidushie Chatam Sofer on Mesechta Avodah Zarah 30A, Minchat Chinuch Mitzvah 546 at end. Aruch Hashulchan Choshen Mishpat 427:8 and examine Sefer Shmirat Haguf Ve Hanefesh Chapter 1 for many other significant Achronim cited.

[2]      see Sefer Hachinuch Mitzvah 546 also see Pe’air Hador Siman 146 to understand Rambam in this light as well.

[3]      see Shiveim Tamarim Kuntrus Shiva Einaim Ayin Dalet and Talmud Bavli Menachot 99B others hold that these verses are Positive in nature see Chochmat Ha’adam Klal 68:4

[4]      see Sefer Hachinuch Mitzvah 546

[5]      Yad Hachazakah Hilchot Rotzeach U’shmirat Hanefesh Chapters 11 & 12 also see Yoreh Deah Siman 116 and Tur Yoreh Deah 116 15

[6]      Sefer Baaley Nefesh Sha’ar Hakedushah page 44


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