FOOD WASTE, RELIGION, AND SPIRITUALITY: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim approaches


To state the obvious, food is essential for all life. Faith traditions, particularly those with a lengthy history, have lived through times of drought, scarcity, and hunger. It is a great challenge to appreciate abundance, until it no longer is; appreciating food is easier when it is lacking. Theological explanations abound when there is scarcity. To address scarcity, legal, ethical, and spiritual discourses have been shaped over the course of millennia. Within these discourses, the importance of food is acknowledged, its presence celebrated, and its consumption regulated. As Anne Vallely (2016, p. 118) cogently frames it, “[food is| the builder of bodies and meaning, it is at the centre of all human cosmologies, ethics and social imaginings”. All faiths have an inherent interest in sustainability. If the faithful do not survive, neither does the faith. Discourses of sustainability are most obviously connected to food and water. Without them, life is not possible. In this context it is easy to understand that food waste is considered abhorrent within faith traditions. When sustenance is actively considered a divinely granted blessing, wasting food and drink is not taken lightly.

While waste is a natural and enduring part of the cycle of life, wastefulness takes us into an ethical relationship with how we handle this feature of the life cycle. The Abrahamic traditions all have proscriptions against profligate wastefulness, stemming from their belief in the divine provenance of creation, and all express a concern for the just distribution of the fruits of the Earth. While they do so within the framework of their own traditions, they also possibly resonate with those outside these traditions.

The Abrahamic faiths reflect the desire to enter into relationships of food consumption and provisioning in ways that fall within the sacred covenant among the divine, the human, and the rest of creation. In this sense, they offer a spiritual grounding for responsible approaches to food provisioning, one rooted in a sense of both the common good and a common divine origin that unites all members of the biotic community.

In this chapter, we will address some of the ways in which Judaism, Christianity, and Islam approach issues of wastefulness, noting how in a time of climate chaos, massive ecological destruction, widespread hunger, and searing social and economic disparity', these issues take on new dimensions of urgency. The sections on Judaism and Islam will begin with a discussion of the literature on wastefulness, including primary texts, and continue with examples of how the legal and moral frameworks of food provisioning are put into practice in some communities. The section on Christianity will offer spiritual underpinnings of approaches to food wastefulness, with examples of how these are put into practice.


Rabbi taught that a man shall not pour the water out of his cistern so long as others may require it.

(2nd century ce, Babylonian Talmud)

This is the way of the righteous and people of deeds who love peace and delight in the goodness of human beings and draw them near to the Torah; they do not waste even a grain of mustard in this world. Their instinct when encountering wastefulness and destruction is to try to prevent it with all their strength.

(The Book of Moral Education, 529, 13th century)

“Do not waste anything” is the first and most general call of God, which comes to you, man, when you realize yourself as master of the earth.

(Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Horeb, Hirscli, 1838[1968])

Much has been written on bal tashhit, the Jewish prohibition against wastefulness (David, 2000; Nir, 2006; Schwartz, 2001; Shtasman, 1999; Vorhand, 2000; Wolff, 2009; Yoreh, 2019). The most comprehensive work to date which relates to the prohibition through an environmental scope has been written by Tanhum Yoreh (2019) which charts the intellectual history of the conceptualisation of bal tashhit. Yoreh argues that bal tashhit is more than a mere prohibition but encapsulates a powerful, yet simple environmental ethic: to hann the environment is to harm oneself. While his book focuses on the prohibition as a whole, many of the examples relate to food and drink.

Bal tashhit has its foundations in the book of Deuteronomy (20:19) in the Hebrew Bible. It began as an injunction against cutting down fruit trees during wartime, and later on was expanded by the sages of the Talmud to become a blanket proscription for all fonns of waste- fiilness and destructiveness. Needless to say, especially based on the origins of the prohibition in cutting down fruit trees (Deuteronomy 20:19), bal tashhit includes in its scope all fonns of wasting food and drink. Though there have been different schools of thought as to how to interpret the verse, one rationale for the prohibition is that human life is dependent on the food and to destroy it is commensurate to destroying oneself.

Some have cast doubt as to how relevant the prohibition is for combating contemporary environmental issues (Nir, 2006; Schwartz, 2001; Waskow, 2013). Nevertheless, Yoreh (2010) demonstrated that among Ultra-Orthodox communities, food is perhaps the most significant area in which bal tashhit is practised. In addition to falling under the prohibition against wastefulness, food and drink hold an elevated status, and causing them to be wasted is also considered to fall under the category of bizui okhalin, literally translated as contempt of foodstuff. When walking through Ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods in Jerusalem, one often sees bread in various stages of decomposition on ledges and walls, because throwing the bread directly into the garbage is considered in these communities to be contemptuous of food.

In traditional Jewish thought, sustenance is considered to be divinely bestowed and one can only truly acquire food or beverage through the act of reciting a blessing over it. The recitation of the blessing is an acknowledgement of the dependence of humans on divine providence to ensure that life is continuously sustained; without food and drink there is no life, without providence there is no food or drink. Thus, not offering a blessing is akin to stealing what is given freely (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 35b). Wasting what has been received as a gift is a double affront: it is contemptuous of the food and of the divine.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, one of the founders of the Jewish Renewal movement, coined the tenn eco-kosher. The Jewish dietary laws, known as kashrut, distinguish between what is permissible to eat (i.e. kosher) and what is not. Traditionally, these laws relate to the kind of animals a Jew is permitted to eat, the necessary guidelines that must be followed in the killing of pennissible animals, and the separation of meat and dairy. Schachter-Shalomi was inclined to include contemporary notions of eating, consuming, and living in an ethical manner within a reconceptualised framework of kashrut. Within the eco-kosher system, food produced, consumed, or disposed of in a wasteful manner with a relatively high environmental impact would not be considered eco-kosher, even if from a traditional perspective it may be considered kosher (Waskow, 1992).

Faith in practice around wastefulness

One of the core themes for Hazon - The Jewish Lab for Sustainability, the umbrella Jewish environmental organisation in the United States and Canada — is food.1 Hazon operates three programmes that specifically target food-related concerns - Teva (the Hebrew word for nature), Adamah (the Hebrew word for earth), andJOFEE (Jewish Outdoor Food/Farming and Environmental Education). Each of these programmes, with its own focus and target communities, highlights issues of food justice and sustainability through a Jewish lens. The film Renewal (Mart)’ Ostrow & Terry Kay Rockefeller, 2007) provides a window into how faith-based environmentalism is put into practice by different faith communities, and offers a glimpse into the early days of the Teva programme. Teva’s programming is geared toward children and youth and was designed with the aim of “helping students develop a more meaningful relationship with nature, and deepen their own connection to Jewish practices and traditions” (Hazon, n.d.). These include a commitment to tikkun clam (in this context, “repairing the world”) and food sustainability. The short film depicts how the children weigh the collective leftovers on their plates at the end of each meal during their stay on the campgrounds. In the dining hall is a sign that reads bal tashhit, reminding visitors to reduce their waste. After a few days on the programme, the children are empowered with knowledge and a sense of responsibility, and their food waste decreases substantially. The aim is for the children to take the values learned during the programme back to their daily lives at home in the city.

There has also been growing concern about food systems in Jewish communities. An increasing number of communities centralised around places of worship are taking action to reduce food waste. For instance, in 2010 the First Narayever Congregation, a traditional egalitarian community in Toronto, created a food policy for food served in the social hall at the synagogue." The policy addresses food waste on multiple levels. In addition to opting for wholesome, non-processed foods, the policy calls for local, seasonal, fair-trade, and organic products. The synagogue does not serve any meat, and the animal products it does use must be produced with animal welfare in mind. The policy calls upon guests to minimise their food waste when filling their reusable plates, compost and recycle where possible, and donate surplus food to those in need. At its core, the Narayever’s commitment to minimise waste and raise awareness about social, environmental, and health issues surrounding food is part of the synagogue’s mission to engage in raising social awareness, and the Jewish value of tikkun clam.'

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