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Environmental Underpinnings in Rosh Hashanah Liturgy: We Are Stewards of Our World….Take Better Care of the Earth!

Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin explores the environmental underpinnings in Rosh Hashanah prayers that lead us to recognize our stewardship and role in protecting the world in which we live!



One of the most famous piyutim or liturgical poems of Rosh Hashanah is called “היום הרת עולם”  which appears at the end of Malchuyot, Zichronot, and Shofarot in the Musaf service of Rosh Hashanah.

The text says:

.היּוֹם הֲרַת עוֹלָם. הַיּוֹם יַעֲמִיד בַּמִּשְׁפָּט כָּל יְצוּרֵי עוֹלָמִים


The Silverman Machzor translates: “This day the world was called into being.”

Machzor Hadash says: “Today is the birthday of the world.”

The Koren Machzor writes: “This day is the birth of the world.”

Dr. Daniel Goldschmidt in his famous Machzor from 1970 translates it: היום נברא העולם

As Dr. Goldschmidt explains, this is based on the words of Rabbi Eliezer found in the Tractate of Rosh Hashanah 10b:

בתשרי נברא העולם

“The world was born (or created) in the month of Tishrei.”

The Gemara later on in Rosh Hashanah 27a says:

“?כְּמַאן מְצַלֵּינַן הָאִידָּנָא “זֶה הַיּוֹם תְּחִלַּת מַעֲשֶׂיךָ זִכָּרוֹן לְיוֹם רִאשׁוֹן

“According to which opinion do we recite in the Musaf service in Zichronot: Today is the beginning of your deeds in memory of the first day?”

כְּמַאן — כְּרַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר

“This follows the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer.”

בתשרי נברא העולם

“The world was created in Tishrei.”

In other words, according to this piyut and according to Rabbi Eliezer, one of the things we are doing on Rosh Hashanah is that we are celebrating the birthday of the world.

Unless you have been living in a cave, you know that the world is not in very good shape.

Global warming is a fact. Many, many species have become extinct, or about to become extinct. Even this summer we have witnessed many natural disasters including the terrible heat wave in Europe in July where many people died of heat prostration. In August, deadly fires in Maui wiped out the city of Lahaina, and in Canada 14 million hectares of forest were burned, as opposed to the previous record of 7.3 million hectares.

Therefore, the question we must ask when we enter this New Year is: What does Judaism say about global warming and the environment?

I would like to emphasize three basic principles:

The first is theological, found in the Book of Leviticus, Chapter 25.

וְהָאָ֗רֶץ לֹ֤א תִמָּכֵר֙ לִצְמִתֻ֔ת כִּי־לִ֖י הָאָ֑רֶץ

It says regarding the sabbatical year: “The world, or the land, will not be sold in perpetuity because the land belongs to me, so says God.”

Similarly, in Psalm 24:

לַֽ֭יהֹוָה הָאָ֣רֶץ וּמְלוֹאָ֑הּ תֵּ֝בֵ֗ל וְיֹ֣שְׁבֵי בָֽהּ׃

“The Earth is Lord’s and all that it holds, the world and its inhabitants.”

The second basic principle of the environment in our Jewish sources is what is called today: ‘stewardship.’ This is found in Genesis, Chapter 2:

וַיִּקַּ֛ח יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֑ם וַיַּנִּחֵ֣הוּ בְגַן־עֵ֔דֶן לְעׇבְדָ֖הּ וּלְשׇׁמְרָֽהּ׃

“The Lord God took man and placed him in the Garden of Eden to till it and to guard it.”

This idea is explained in a famous midrash in Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) Rabbah:

“When the Holy One Blessed be He created Adam, he took him and made him pass before all the trees in the Garden of Eden. And he said to him. See my works, see how lovely and how excellent they are! And everything I have created, for you I have created! Pay attention that you should not corrupt it and destroy My world, for if you corrupt it, there is no one to fix it after you.”

In other words, God put us in the Garden of Eden and in the world in order to protect the world: stewardship.

Finally, the third idea is not theological, rather logical. A person who harms nature, harms himself. Thus, for example, we read in a famous midrash in Vayikra Rabbah, Chapter 4:

“Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai taught: it can be compared to people who are in a boat and one of the people took a drill and started to drill under his seat. His fellow passengers said to him: Why are you doing this? He said to them: What do you care! Am I not drilling under me? They replied, “Because you are sinking the boat with us in it.”

In other words, the logic of the situation is that if one person corrupts the environment or if one corporation corrupts the environment, it affects the entire society, and in many cases the entire world.

Thus we learn here going into the New Year, that we must all take care of the environment.

A: Because the world and all that is in it belongs to God;

B: Because God put us here  לְעׇבְדָ֖הּ וּלְשׇׁמְרָֽהּ to till it and to guard the world;

C: The logic of the situation is if that if we destroy the world, we destroy ourselves.

What can we as individuals or institutions do?

Everybody has to do their little bit. As they say in Yiddish:

.א ביסל און א ביסל ווערט א פולע שיסל

“A little and a little make a full pot.”

Here at Schechter, we are now renovating our administration and library building thanks to generous donations from the Harvey L. Miller Foundation and other donors. One of the things we are doing is that we are putting solar panels on the roofs of both buildings so that within a short amount of time all of our electricity will be supplied by the sun and we will not be using fossil fuels.

As we enter the new year, I wish you all a Shanah Tovah from Schechter and I hope that you will take this message of  היּוֹם הֲרַת עוֹלָם  to heart.


Shanah Tovah!

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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