June 7, 2019 / Comments (0)

A Green Shavuot Call to Action

Shavuot, as we mentioned in a previous post, celebrates the end of the counting of the Omer period (which coincided with the grain harvest in antiquity), and marks the Jewish people receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai.

The holiday has a number of names in addition to Shavuot, which means “Festival of Weeks.” It’s also known as the Festival of the Harvest (chag hakatzir), Festival of Reaping and the Day of First Fruits. Hellenized Jews, and later Christians, refer to it as Pentecost.

The choice first fruits of your soil you shall bring to the house of the LORD your God.

Exodus 23:19

These first fruits, the bikkurim, were the underpinning of the holiday in antiquity. Today, many shuls have the tradition of decorating with greenery to celebrate it.

As wilderness enthusiasts, it may be helpful for us to relate this holiday and Sukkot to the concepts of stewardship and go beyond beautiful, but relatively closed community-focused minhag. This holiday in particular gives us both a physical and esoteric charge: responsibilities to the land, and responsibilities to the soul and the Divine with the giving of Torah.

The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism asks, regarding Shavuot and the Environment:

  • How can we ensure we live in an ecologically responsible manner?
  • How can we transform our individual practices into advocacy that includes the broader community?

After moving to our 12-acre wooded plot near the Maine Coast three years ago, Leah and I planted a pear tree, a plum tree, and two apple trees. When we planted them, my first thought was imagining the very first pear, and being able to take it to a Temple in Jerusalem as our ancestors did.

The connection to the environment is strong. And we remember, that Hashem instructed Adam to be a steward of the earth, one of the earliest commandments given in the Torah.


Jews from all walks of life are starting to consider not just the base kosher standards in their approach to kashrut, but the ethical implications of their food. Where it or its ingredients are sourced, are the cultivators/workers fairly compensated, are animals in question treated in accordance with our laws concerning tza’ar ba’alei chayim?

If you think it’s untoward to float a term first created by Rabbi Shachter-Shalomi, of the Jewish Renewal Movement, think again. It’s very clear we have a mandate to think beyond just the material anxieties of kashrut. If you can take time to worry about toeveling your dishware, you can think about this.

On Shavuot, we traditionally eat dairy foods, because our ancestors learned, at Sinai, how to keep kosher. They couldn’t immediately switch to schechita, so they opted for dairy meals.

What is the point of kosher? People debate. Some believe it to be healthier. Some believe it reflects the reality of desert cooking in antiquity. Many of the commandments underpinning kashrut are called chukim, mitzvot for which there are no obvious reasons.

So we all generally agree, amongst Jews who keep kosher, that we do it to sanctify eating, to do it in such a way that takes as mundane a thing as eating, and use it to consider our relationship to the Divine.

So for someone that cares about the environment, what better way to exemplify this sanctification through kashrut than to consider the holistic implications of our food?

For my wife and I, that has meant looking to do our own evaluations of produce and farm-to-table dairy products. Believe it or not, in the history of the Jews, organized certification is a relatively recent development. Jews used to be responsible for ensuring their own evaluation of kashrut. With the increased amount of transparency in sourcing, now is as good a time as any to return to that, and wait for our certifying authorities to catch up with us.

Look for Fair Trade Labels in addition to your preferred hechsher. Thus far, eco-kosher certifications have emerged mostly from Renewal sources, so you’ll have to check with your rabbi about their validity. If you are curious, I know of two: Eco-Kosher, which as a trained mashgiach myself, puts a decent amount of time into both traditional standards and the ecological considerations; and the Shtiebel Eco-Kosher Certification. They’re both fairly mature, but whether or not they truly meet Jewish standards is a subject for debate.

In Our Homes and Gardens

We’re finally coming off of a relatively mild black fly season. My wife and I considered having our property sprayed to help with insect abatement, but then we realized how reckless it would be to do so.

First, we live on a vibrant tributary to the Penobscot River.

Second, we have children.

Third, we have so much fauna on our property, to include bears, turkeys, deer, fisher cats, racoons, porcupines, and the occasional moose.

At our homes and our institutions where we have gardens, we need to consider environmentally friendly ways to cultivate our land. You don’t need harmful chemicals to have a vibrant garden or beautiful lawn. My wife and I have a mostly native plant garden that is incredibly hospitable to honeybees, and yet is very beautiful to look upon.

We just need to start composting and doing more to avoid recyclable waste.

Also, consider, if your synagogue has the land, hosting a community garden.

Make the Commitment

We don’t need the holiday of Shavuot to do any of this. We can make the focus traditional and just embrace these things in our daily lives. But it’s a good frame to have the discussions with our communities.

Last modified: June 7, 2019

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