Shabbat & Nature

The conundrum of Shabbat observance and environmental damage.

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Shabbat, then, is to time what a nature preserve is to space. Both are "places" marked with distinct boundaries. In both, the soul of the human "visitor" is refreshed, while the natural order is preserved in its unviolated form. Outside the boundaries, we do not seek to negate civilization, the realm of human action, and make the whole world a preserve. But ideally the values experienced inside the "fence" will influence how we view the world beyond, and our role in it.

But there is an unresolved tension between the lofty aggadah and the nitty-gritty of the Shabbat halakhah. If Shabbat implies renouncing human domination over the natural world, and represents a more harmonious relationship with the rest of creation, then how can we justify the waste involved in modern observance of the Sabbath, such as leaving lights and other electric appliances on for the entirety of the day? And doesn't Sabbath observance become a violation of the mitzvah of bal tash'hit - the prohibition of senseless waste?  Some observant Jews look to technology to solve the problem: Let timers operate our lights; let us "observe" the Sabbath by using electronic relays and devices invented specifically for the seventh day.

But is turning to technological innovations to comply with restrictions in the Sabbath's spirit of humility and human creatureliness? Rather, it only emphasizes our continued scientific exploitation of nature, and the use of the uniquely human creative impulse that we are meant to be restraining on this day. Perhaps there is no single solution that will satisfy all Jews, but I believe that the issue must be addressed when teaching, and observing, Shabbat.

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Jeremy Benstein

Jeremy Benstein is the fellowship director of the Abraham Joshua Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership in Tel Aviv.