Composting: A Jewish Practice?

Turning & Returning

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A healthy compost bin requires a fairly particular recipe of wet matter like fruit and vegetables and dry matter like news clippings and leaves. If the recipe isn't right, the composting process does not work correctly and can result in horrific smells, bugs, flies, and other pests. (A well functioning compost bin should smell like soil, not putrid, rotting food.) Unfortunately, many compost novices understandably give up after one bad experience, when a few small tweaks to their recipe could set them back on track.

Composting Makes It Big

Despite these difficulties, over the last decade, the practice of composting has made its way into the mainstream, shedding its image as a hobby for hippies and hardcore gardeners. More and more rural and suburban residents are building bins in their backyards, and even city dwellers are finding ways to compost via worm bins or by bringing their food scraps to a nearby community garden.

composting jewishThe cities of San Francisco and Toronto even have citywide composting programs, where residents sort their food scraps and lawn clippings, and set them out for municipal pickup along with their recycling bin and (vastly reduced in size) garbage bag.

Getting back to Ben Bag Bag, as odd as it might sound, I think there is something deeply Jewish about the practice of composting. As Berkeley resident, Adam Edell, wrote on the Jewish food blog The Jew & The Carrot:

It is my understanding that in the Kabbalistic tradition of Rabbi Isaac Luria, the world was created through God's words, which were held in glass vessels. Unable to contain the power of their possibility, the vessels shattered, their shards scattered to the corners of an imperfect earth, leaving us as gatherers of these holy sparks, or klitat ha'nitzot.

It would seem that tending the compost pile is a manifestation of that instinct to take the broken, forgotten, used-up, and to transmute the mundane into something holy again: we feed our food scraps to our compost bin, knowing that the rich soil will give our fields a boost of nourishment come planting time. Some would say that as we "raise the sparks" we are taking part in Tikkun Olam; that is, repairing the fragments of the material world around us.

Similarly, in Midrash it says, "When the world was created, God made everything a little bit incomplete. Rather than making bread to grow out of the earth, God made wheat so that we might bake it into bread. Why? So that we might become partners in the work of creation."

From the microbes to the plants to the people who pick and prepare our food, there are many partners in creation, helping us to create a "new earth." Through composting, the sparks of our work are elevated, and the process starts again-- cyclical and sacred.

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Leah Koenig

Leah Koenig is a freelance writer whose work has been published in The New York Times Magazine, Gastronomica, Jewish Living, Lilith, Culinate, Beliefnet and other publications.