An American rabbi in Jerusalem is using his Torah-based principles to lead the way in global environmentalism. In order to teach these principles to Bible lovers around the world, he has written an “Eco Bible” that is both a Bible study tool and a guide to healing God’s Creation.
Judaism is based in the land of Israel with much of the Temple service focusing on agriculture. This is emphasized on Tu B’Shvat, the 15th day of the month of Shvat, the New Year’s of the trees that begins on Sunday evening. The foundation for it is found in a verse in Leviticus:
When you enter the land and plant any tree for food, you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden for you, not to be eaten. In the fourth year all its fruit shall be set aside for jubilation before Hashem; and only in the fifth year may you use its fruit—that its yield to you may be increased: I Hashem am your God. Leviticus 19:23-25
For three years after planting a tree, any fruit that it produced was Orla, forbidden for consumption. In the fourth year, the fruit was classified as Neta Revai and could be brought to Jerusalem to be eaten inside the walls of the city. On Tu B’Shvat, every tree acquired an additional year. So even if the tree was planted one week before Tu B’Shvat, when the holiday arrived, the tree was now one year old. After passing through three such Tu B’Shvats, the tree was no longer Orla.
With all of this focus on nature, agriculture, and the land, a commentary on the Bible that focused on environmentalism was necessary, according to Rabbi Yonatan Neril. Therefore, Rabbi Neril wrote the “Eco Bible: An Ecological Commentary on the Hebrew Bible”.
“I took courses on environmental issues in college, and then came to Israel and studied for over six years in yeshivot (Jewish learning centers),” Rabbi Neril told Israel365 News. “When I was studying Jewish texts, I saw deep linkages between the Bible and ecology. I worked with editors and my co-author, Rabbi Leo Dee, and out came Eco Bible.”
Rabbi Neril’s inspiration was also more personal. The Talmud (Ketubot 111a) teaches that “whoever walks four cubits in the Land of Israel is assured of a place in the world to come” and Rabbi Neril embodies that precept. Raised in California, he gathers inspiration from hiking in the forests surrounding Jerusalem with his wife, Shana, and their two children.
In addition to being the basis of his Jewish faith, Rabbi Neril sees the Torah as the perfect vehicle to teach about environmentalism to people of all religions.
“The Eco Bible is for anyone who seeks to find wisdom in the Bible,” he said. “At a time of ecological and spiritual crisis, how the Bible is understood can have a profound impact on human behavior, since billions of people in religions worldwide consider it a holy book.”
The book is a commentary on over 400 verses from an environmental persepctive. Volume one is a commentary on Genesis and Exodus. Volume two is a commentary on Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
“Eco Bible quotes over 100 rabbis and other great Jewish thinkers commenting on verses from the Hebrew Bible,” Rabbi Neril said. “Until now, their ecological insights could be found scattered in hundreds of books but might only be noticed by a bible scholar also focused on ecology. Eco Bible gathers and connects these insights for anyone studying the Hebrew Bible—insights which relate even more critically to our time than any before.”
“We hope this Eco Bible will speak to all those who relate deeply to the Hebrew Bible and deeply care about the health and survival of our planet,” Rabbi Neril said.
One commentary teaches a lesson about “Edible Trees” based on Genesis:
And Hashem said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation: seed-bearing plants, fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation: seed-bearing plants of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And Hashem saw that this was good. Genesis 1:11-12
Rabbi Neril cites Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, a Medieval rabbinic authority known as the Ba’al HaTurim.
“Rabbi Asher points out, God commanded the earth to produce ‘fruit trees that bear fruit,” Rabbi Neril wrote in the Eco Bible”, meaning trees whose bark could be eaten as well as their fruit. However, he notes that the earth produced trees whose bark is not eaten that produce fruit in order that the trees themselves would not be devoured.”
“Long ago, and today, we have come to understand that trees – in addition to the fruit they produce – have broader value including providing homes for animals large and small, and retaining soil to prevent erosion and catastrophic mudslides.”
Another eco-commentary explains a verse about Abraham:
Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree. Genesis 18:4
Rabbi Neril cites Rabbeinu Chananel ben Chushiel, an 11th-century Kairouanan rabbi and Talmudist, who asked why the angels revealed themselves to Abraham under a tree.
“He answered that in doing so they revealed a message to Abraham,” the Eco Bible explains. “You, like a tree, will flourish even in your old age.”
This commentary is derived from a verse in Job:
There is hope for a tree; If it is cut down it will renew itself; Its shoots will not cease.If its roots are old in the earth, And its stump dies in the ground, At the scent of water it will bud And produce branches like a sapling. Job 14:7-9
“Abraham’s resilience and prosperity are compared to a tree,” Rabbi Neril wrote. “Indeed, trees are one of the most resilient organisms, specifically against drought. This is increasingly important in light of climate change causing unpredictable rainfall, extreme weather events, and stronger pests that threaten forests. Contemporary researchers have discovered that diverse “forests with trees that employ a high diversity of traits related to water use suffer less of an impact from drought. They are also more resilient to forest fires.”
Yet another commentary is based on a pact made by Abraham:
[Avraham] planted a tamarisk at Be’er Sheva, and invoked there the name of Hashem, the Everlasting God. Genesis 21:33
Rabbi Neril cited the 19th Century commentary by Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser known as the Malbim who explained that the tamarisk was actually an orchard.
“The peace pact made with Abimelech, king of Gerar, today’s Gaza, is concluded with the planting of fruit trees,” Rabbi Neril said. This represents the importance of sustaining long-term and environmental prosperity for all, and demonstrating that true peace is based upon a joint hope for a better future.”
“This is comparable to modern Israel and Jordan which based a 1994 peace pact on sharing water resources,” Rabbi Neril concluded.
Rabbi Neril is an active force in the world of environmentalism. He founded the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development, which reveals the connection between religion and ecology and mobilizes faith communities to act on climate change. He is a member of the United Nations Environment Program’s Faith-based Advisory Council and has spoken internationally on religion and the environment.
The rabbi has also co-organized twelve interfaith environmental conferences in the US and Israel. Most recently, he helped organize an initiative called The Sinai Climate Partnership which took place in the Sinai Peninsula, in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt in November. The event culminated in the “Ten Principles for Climate Justice”. As a symbolic gesture, some participants staged a smashing of a pair of tablets on the peak of Mount Sinai.