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Environmental and Vegetarian Lessons From the Shabbat Morning Services

By Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D.

While there has been recent progress on Jewish consideration of environmental and vegetarian issues, much more needs to be done. One approach is to show how central these issues are in the Jewish tradition. This article discusses several statements in the Shabbat morning prayers that point to Judaismís great concern about animals and the environment.

In the Baruch Shehíamar prayer, it states that, "Blessed is the One (God) Who has compassion on the earth; blessed is the One Who has compassion on the creatures [animals and people]". Since Judaism teaches that human beings, uniquely created in Godís image, are to imitate Godís positive attributes, we should also exhibit concern and compassion toward the earthís environment and all of Godís creatures.

God is referred to in the Shabbat services as Rachum (the merciful one) and as Av harachamim (Father of mercies). Once again, as we are to imitate God, we should be merciful. The Talmud states that Jews are to be rachmanim bínei rachmanim (merciful children of merciful ancestors) and that one who is not compassionate cannot truly be of the seed of Abraham, our father (Bezah 32b). It also states that Heaven grants compassion to those who are compassionate to others, and withholds it from those who are not (Shabbat 151b).

In the important ashrei prayer, recited twice during the morning service, it states that God is good to all, and that His mercies are over all of His creatures. According to Rabbi Dovid Sears, author of A Vision of Eden: Animal Welfare and Vegetarianism in Jewish Law and Mysticism, this verse is "the touchstone of the rabbinic attitude toward animal welfare, appearing in a number of contexts in Torah literature." Referring to the Talmudic teaching that we are to emulate Godís ways, he states, "Therefore, compassion for all creatures, including animals, is not only Godís business; it is a virtue that we too must emulate. Moreover, compassion must not be viewed as an isolated phenomenon, one of a number of religious duties in the Judaic conception of the Divine service. It is central to our entire approach to life."

The ashrei prayer is followed by a number of psalms extolling God that begin and end with "Halleluyah." The final psalm in that grouping ends with, "Let all souls praise God. Halleluyah! Let all souls praise God. Halleluyah!"

Perek Shira, "A Chapter of Song," a mystical hymn dating from the 5th Ė 7th century that even today is found in many traditional siddurs (prayer books) portrays all living creatures singing their individual songs in praise of the Creator. The universe is filled with hymns as cows, camels, horses, mules, roosters, chickens, doves, eagles, butterflies, locusts, spiders, flies, sea creatures, fish, frogs, and many more offer Biblical songs of praise to God.

This concept is reinforced by other Shabbat morning prayers. The beautiful Nishmat prayer begins with: "The soul of every loving being shall bless Your name, Lord, our God; the spirit of all flesh shall always glorify and exalt Your remembrance, our King."

Shortly after the Borchu call to prayer, the Hakol Yoducha prayer indicates that "All will thank You and all will praise You Ö All will exalt you Ö" The Artscroll siddur commentator states, "Thus every facet of the universe will join in thanking and lauding God."

The Keil Adon prayer that is generally sang by the chazzan and congregation together, indicates that God "is blessed by the mouth of every soul."

There is a very powerful environmental lesson in the second paragraph of the Shíma, one of Judaismís most important prayers:

And it will come to pass that if you continually hearken to My commandments that I command you this day, to love Hashem, your God, and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul Ė then I will provide rain for your land in its proper time, the early rains and the later rains, that you may gather in your grain, your wine and your oil. I will provide grass in your field for your cattle and you will eat and be satisfied. Beware lest your heart be seduced and you turn astray and serve gods of others and bow to them. Then the wrath of God will blaze against you. He will restrain the heaven so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce. And you will swiftly be banished from the goodly land that God gives you.

The message seems clear: if we put Godís teachings into practice and imitate His ways of mercy, compassion, and justice, we will have blessings of prosperity, justice, and peace; however, if we turn to false modern gods of materialism, egoism, hedonism, and chauvinism, we will be cursed with many environmental and other societal problems.

If more Jews become aware of the many beautiful Jewish teachings such as those above and strived to put them into practice, it would have great potential to help revitalize Judaism and move our imperiled planet toward a more just, humane, and environmentally sustainable path and toward that time when "no one shall hurt nor destroy in all of Godís holy mountain" (Isaiah 11:9).

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