“Six years you shall sow your land and gather its produce; but in the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow. Let the needy among your people eat of it and what they leave, let the wild beasts eat.” (Exodus 23:11)
This verse from Exodus describes the Jewish tradition of shmita, or the sabbatical year. The Torah (also known as the Five Books of Moses) commands Jews to release, to allow the land and the people to rest every seven years. This current Jewish year—5782 in the Hebrew calendar—is a sabbatical one, which began on the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah in September 2021 and will end with the start of the same holiday in the fall of 2022.
Although the agricultural commandments of shmita may not be directly applicable in the lives of many Jews today, it has become an important concept for environmental thinking within the Jewish community. A practical, biblical means of keeping the land healthy, shmita is also, more abstractly, a driving force for investigating how we are working with—or against—our environment. In light of the sabbatical year of 5782, then, it is a timely moment to explore what environmentalism means within Jewish communities, both secular and religious, across the United States.
Marc Boone Fitzerman is a rabbi at Congregation B’nai Emunah, a synagogue in Tulsa and one of the oldest Jewish institutions in Oklahoma. With a deeply rooted sense of social justice, he has led his congregation in actively practicing values of environmental sustainability and stewardship.
Rabbi Fitzerman discussed Jewish environmentalism in the context of the Hebrew calendar—the basis for both shmita and all Jewish holidays—which itself is deeply connected to the environment and to agricultural seasons. While based on the cycle of the moon, similar to other traditions, the Hebrew lunar calendar includes a leap (additional) month periodically added, ensuring that holidays remain seasonally aligned. Rabbi Fitzerman says that, from the calendar, “you can always feel the awareness of seedtime and harvest and our dependence on the natural world.”
Rabbi Fitzerman also connects themes of Jewish environmentalism to the winter holiday of Tu B’Shvat, celebrated this year on January 16 and 17. “It’s referred to in Jewish literature as the New Year of Trees, and it marks the breaking up of winter in the Land of Israel,” he explains. “In our own time, the holiday is rapidly collecting rituals, project work, and liturgy focused on the great theme of sustainability.”
My own current synagogue, Congregation Beth Shalom in Bloomington, Indiana, practices a Tu B’Shvat seder, or ritual meal, infused with environmental themes. Although a seder is most commonly associated with Passover, many Jews celebrate Tu B’Shvat with a joyful seder meal featuring symbolic nuts and fruits, juices, and wines.
At Beth Shalom, this seder is an all-ages family event, and the synagogue ritual also includes discussions of environmental justice and injustice. Riffing off the Passover tradition of reciting the ten plagues sent to Egypt by God in the story of the exodus, Beth Shalom incorporates ten “environmental plagues” into its Tu B’Shvat seder:
Wasting energy. Wasting natural resources. Air pollution. Water pollution. Extinction of species. Release of toxic substances. Environmental damage in poor communities. Climate change. Inaction. Disregard for our children and grandchildren.
Shmita, too, features in the Beth Shalom seder. Children are prompted to consider why the land might need to rest and why the Torah mentions those experiencing poverty as part of the sabbatical year’s considerations. Beth Shalom’s seder is ultimately one of joy and celebration, ending with a hopeful directive derived from an exegesis on a passage from the Book of Genesis: “Look at My works. See how beautiful they are, how excellent. For your sake, I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil or destroy My world—for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you” (Midrash Kohelet Rabbah, Ecclesiastes 7:13).
Yet, even implicit in this message is an understanding that humans are capable of destruction, and the Beth Shalom seder does not shy away from acknowledging these modern-day plagues.
Another Jewish holiday, Sukkot, is an autumnal harvest festival, celebrated by eating and sleeping in a temporary structure called a sukkah (plural: sukkot, lowercase). “You shall dwell in sukkot seven days, every citizen in Israel shall dwell in sukkot, so that your descendants shall know that in sukkot I caused the Children of Israel to dwell when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” (Leviticus, 23:42-43).
Dr. Gabrielle Berlinger, an assistant professor of American studies and folklore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has spent much of her career studying the Sukkot holiday and sukkot structures. As a pilgrimage holiday with agricultural roots, she says, “it makes total sense that you would be able to think about environmental narratives through it.”
Jewish law commands that a sukkah must have a thatched roof made of organic material and be somewhat protective from the elements while still providing a view of the sky, so that stars are visible and rain can penetrate. The rest of the structure, however, may be made from any material. Berlinger noted that it has become increasingly popular to intentionally build sukkot out of recycled materials.
“I saw many examples of individuals who, when explaining their tradition to me explicitly, said, ‘we go to Goodwill and buy recycled sheets. We gather scrap wood. We’re always reusing the materials because this is a holiday in which we’re trying to think about the wilderness and nature, trying to think about the world and how this practice could be a part of improving the world we live in.’”
For those seven days, the sukkah represents the impermanence of shelter. Berlinger described how one man she met said that “the house you live in is fleeting,” while “the sukkah is eternal.” In this interpretation of Sukkot, the temporary construction of the sukkah is symbolic of God, and thus its meaning is one of “metaphoric shelter” that is more permanent than one’s home the other 358 days a year.
“What is it like to not have material things, but to have people and to have a journey and to have a destination, the Promised Land?” Berlinger questions. In the context of modern environmentalism, this promised land could be viewed as a healthy earth for all its inhabitants.
By taking time to live outside in a temporary construction, Berlinger says, “Sukkot ritual practice removes you from the material world.” While an important line of environmental thinking, this can also have real-world implications as we face increasing displacement and dispossession of people around the world due to climate disasters.
“The idea of Sukkot through that lens is one in which you could focus on the temporary nature of the structure and think about what it means to have that kind of footprint in the world,” Berlinger says. “How can you think about building shelters and structures and architectures that are not only in tune with the environment, but will work with increasing, unpredictable change?”
The Workers Circle, a Jewish social justice organization with a hundred-plus-year history of activism and education, grounds its mission in a different set of Jewish traditions, one of longstanding labor rights and immigrant advocacy. A branch of the organization, the Workers Circle College Network, brings together Jewish college students from around the country to advocate for progressive environmental policies, along with other social issues, drawing inspiration from this rich history of Jewish activism.
Social justice organizer Jonathan Taubes views their work as a continuation of American Jewish activism in the labor movements of the early twentieth century. “Prior to the New Deal, there was not really a precedent that the government should step in and help people, and the Jewish activists who were part of the Workers Circle played a huge role in making that happen,” he explains.
Members of the Workers Circle College Network cite Jewish history, as well as Jewish traditions of perseverance and activism, as sources of optimism as they take on challenges such as climate change. “There have been so many instances of the Jews as a persecuted people fighting, up against seemingly insurmountable odds,” Ethan Wellerstein, a network member, says. “Sometimes we won, other times we didn’t. But regardless of that outcome, we continued the fight.”
Noa Baron, a college organizer for the Workers Circle College Network, sees the idea of shmita as an important reminder in their work: “We are in relation with the land that we live on, that it’s not just something we can take from and take from and take from.” To them, it’s also a reminder that people have been thinking about this relationship for a long time. “I think people think of climate justice as a twenty-year-old phenomenon, and it’s not. People have known these things for a long time. And we haven’t always listened.”
These roots of these activist traditions are found in Jewish text. To Rabbi Fitzerman, the Book of Psalms is a powerful example of Jewish teachings on environmental stewardship. He cites a passage in which “the poet suddenly abandons his focus on the Covenant between God and the people of Israel and opens to a wider concern: ‘The heavens belong to the Holy One, but the earth God gave to human beings.’” (Psalms 115:16). He says that it is a statement about stewardship and responsibility: “In the great design of the universe, we each have a role to play, and ours is to protect our planetary home.”
More grimly, perhaps, is what Rabbi Fitzerman shared next: “Immediately after that verse, the focus shifts again: the dead can’t praise God. It’s as if the poet sees the consequence of irresponsibility. We won’t survive the apocalypse of our carelessness.”
Fortunately, Jewish texts also offer a sense of optimism. Rabbi Fitzerman feels that the story of Noah—who, in the Book of Genesis, builds an ark to prevent extinction during a flood—is one of hope. “It is fundamentally a statement about failure and corruption which ends on a note of transcendent renewal. The raven disappears, but the dove returns to Noah with a branch that portends the renewal of life. The Book of Genesis suggests that there is always hope, that through clarity and action we can mount a rainbow in the heavens.”
For Rabbi Fitzerman, the shmita sabbatical year as a biblical tradition is foundational to Jewish environmentalism. By allowing the earth to breathe through the practice of shmita, he says, the earth can recover from the impact of human life and labor. “Rather than risk collapse, the Torah taps out a rhythm of work and rest. It says no to extractive capitalism and defends a deep, universal standard of well-being.”
Explorations of shmita are driving many Jewish environmental efforts in this Jewish year 5782. From Hazon, a Jewish sustainability organization, to Elsewhere, a North Carolina museum and artist collective with Jewish roots, Jews across the United States are taking inspiration from this sabbatical year to explore what the idea of release can mean in striving for a more just and positive future.
Congregations like B’nai Emunah and Beth Shalom are putting their values into practice. Beth Shalom has joined the Jewish Earth Alliance in an ongoing letter-writing campaign to elected officials about environmental policy issues. B’nai Emunah is the only faith community participating in Sustainable Tulsa, an organization that supports businesses and organizations in practicing sustainability and stewardship.
According to Rabbi Fitzerman, “We have made ourselves accountable to a serious, long-term effort to reduce our environmental footprint in a material and measurable way. We compost and recycle, avoid injurious products and packaging, and monitor our expenditures on water and energy. Our goal is to serve as a model for the rest of the faith community. So far, it’s a work in progress.”
With efforts such as Young Jews for a Green New Deal, the Workers Circle College Network is engaging Jewish youth to enact the Jewish value of tikkun olam—repairing the world—through environmental activism. Bringing Jewish culture and values into the fold, through music, poetry, and celebration, is part of the organization’s strategy.
For Wellerstein, his environmental activism has strengthened his Jewish identity. “I’ve noticed, actually through work with the Workers Circle, I’ve become much more spiritual and religious in some ways. I feel like the more Jewish I am, the more committed I feel to these activities, and the richer they feel.” His Jewish identity keeps him motivated in what can be challenging and disheartening activist work. “It feels much more personal and less of a job at times. And then the more I do, the more I feel like I’m fulfilling some sort of Judaism for myself. And I think those reinforce one another.”
To Rabbi Fitzerman, “the whole value of a religious tradition is what it offers to the world. If we have nothing to say about the earth, then we are in the wrong business. In our case, we have to repudiate those texts in Torah that credential human dominance and exploitation, and foreground those that demand gentleness and respect. When the Torah tells us that fruit trees cannot be used to construct siegeworks or weapons, it’s describing a new and responsible way of looking at the world.”
From text to tradition to activism, Jewish culture is infused with environmental values and goals, ones that are especially salient as we move through our sabbatical year. At a time when climate anxiety can become an ever-present source of paralyzing doom, Jewish teaching compels us toward a sense of optimism while also serving as an urgent call to action in the face of an uncertain future.
Joelle Jackson is a former intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, a second-year Wells Scholar at Indiana University studying folklore and anthropology, and a member of the Jewish community. Special thanks to Dr. Gabrielle Berlinger, Ethan Wellerstein, Noa Baron, Jonathan Taubes, Rabbi Marc Boone Fitzerman, Didi Kerler, and Amy Jackson.