Judaism and Food Justice: A Taste of Food Waste

What responsibility do we have, as Jews, to address issues of food waste?

This source sheet is a preliminary venture into our tradition's commentary on prohibitions against wanton waste, environmental stewardship, responsibility for community members in need, and responses to hunger and surplus in order to mobilize Jewish communities to act on food injustice by rescuing food waste and transforming it to feed our community members.

Here are some sources from our tradition:

Bal Taschit

Bal Taschit refers to the principle below, to not destroy fruit trees when sieging a city and, more broadly, to not destroy wantonly. This principle was expanded to address issues of food, water, and energy waste in sections of the Mishnah and broader Talmud.

(יט) כִּֽי־תָצ֣וּר אֶל־עִיר֩ יָמִ֨ים רַבִּ֜ים לְֽהִלָּחֵ֧ם עָלֶ֣יהָ לְתָפְשָׂ֗הּ לֹֽא־תַשְׁחִ֤ית אֶת־עֵצָהּ֙ לִנְדֹּ֤חַ עָלָיו֙ גַּרְזֶ֔ן כִּ֚י מִמֶּ֣נּוּ תֹאכֵ֔ל וְאֹת֖וֹ לֹ֣א תִכְרֹ֑ת כִּ֤י הָֽאָדָם֙ עֵ֣ץ הַשָּׂדֶ֔ה לָבֹ֥א מִפָּנֶ֖יךָ בַּמָּצֽוֹר׃ (כ) רַ֞ק עֵ֣ץ אֲשֶׁר־תֵּדַ֗ע כִּֽי־לֹא־עֵ֤ץ מַאֲכָל֙ ה֔וּא אֹת֥וֹ תַשְׁחִ֖ית וְכָרָ֑תָּ וּבָנִ֣יתָ מָצ֗וֹר עַל־הָעִיר֙ אֲשֶׁר־הִ֨וא עֹשָׂ֧ה עִמְּךָ֛ מִלְחָמָ֖ה עַ֥ד רִדְתָּֽהּ׃ (פ)
(19) When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city? (20) Only trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed; you may cut them down for constructing siegeworks against the city that is waging war on you, until it has been reduced.

(י) וְלֹא הָאִילָנוֹת בִּלְבַד. אֶלָּא כָּל הַמְשַׁבֵּר כֵּלִים. וְקוֹרֵעַ בְּגָדִים. וְהוֹרֵס בִּנְיָן. וְסוֹתֵם מַעְיָן. וּמְאַבֵּד מַאֲכָלוֹת דֶּרֶךְ הַשְׁחָתָה. עוֹבֵר בְּלֹא תַשְׁחִית. וְאֵינוֹ לוֹקֶה אֶלָּא מַכַּת מַרְדּוּת מִדִּבְרֵיהֶם:

(10) And not only regarding trees, but even one who destructively breaks vessels or rips up clothing or tears down a building or seals up a spring or wastes food violates the Negative Commandment of “Do not destroy”. However, he only receives stripes for disobedience, in accordance with the Rabbis.

What relationship do the listed items prohibited for destruction have? Vessels, clothing, buildings, and springs all can be relied upon and continuously used. In addition, clothing, buildings, springs, and food all provide necessities for survival and safety, and vessels as an extension for storing water and food, among other things.

ספרי דברים פיסקא רג

כי האדם עץ השדה, מלמד שחייו של אדם אינם א- לא מן האילן. רבי ישמעא- ל אומר מיכן חס המקום על פירות האילן קל וחומר .מאילן ומה אילן שעושה פירות הזהירך הכתוב עליו פירות עצמם על אחת כמה וכמה

Sifrei, Deuteronomy, section 203, translation by R’ Yonatan Neril '

...For a person is a tree of the field' teaches that the life of a person comes only from the tree. Rabbi Yishmael said, “From where [do we learn] that G-d is concerned about fruit of trees? Based on a logical inference from trees: just as Scripture warns you about [not destroying] a fruit-bearing tree, the fruit itself how much the more so!”

Questions for discussion:

In what ways do our current food system and widely-held food ethics disconnect our lives from other-than-human lives?

Why is it more important to preserve the fruit than the source of the fruit?

Does the tree have intrinsic value or simply the virtue of producing fruit?

(ב) שרש המצוה ידוע, שהוא כדי ללמד נפשנו לאהב הטוב והתועלת ולהדבק בו, ומתוך כך תדבק בנו הטובה, ונרחיק מכל דבר רע ומכל דבר השחתה, וזהו דרך החסידים ואנשי מעשה אוהבים שלום ושמחים בטוב הבריות ומקרבים אותן לתורה, ולא יאבדו אפילו גרגיר של חרדל בעולם, ויצר עליהם בכל אבדון והשחתה שיראו, ואם יוכלו להציל יצילו כל דבר מהשחית בכל כחם

The root reason for this Mitzvah [bal tashchit] is known: for it is in order to train our souls to love what is good and beneficial and to cling to it; and as a result, good fortune will cling to us, and we will move away every evil thing and from every matter of destructiveness. This is the way of kindly men of piety and the observant; they love peace and are happy at the good fortune of people, and bring them near the Torah. They will not destroy even a mustard seed in the world and they are distressed at every ruination and spoilage they see; and if they are able to do any rescuing, they will save anything from destruction, with all their power.

Is there a connection between the alienation that we experience from our food/food waste and the alienation we experience from our jobs/communities/true potential? Is the inverse true, as the verse above implies?


The systems that create food waste also create vast environmental damage.

Much of the food grown or consumed in this country is produced at a surplus, valuing quantity over the demands of the market, according to Earl Butz’s policies from the 1970s. (about) 40% of the food produced in the US is being thrown out at some point from farm to store to fridge to table to trash. This is an output of our linear thinking and industrial efficiency.

We are at a critical juncture. Climate change is a reality, already evicting hundreds of thousands from homes they have lived in for generations. Linear ways of thinking have led us to very efficient means of production of food, but the costs to the environment and vulnerable communities (“externalities”), such as huge dead zones of the Gulf of Mexico that are devoid of oxygen due to fertilizer that washes down the Mississippi, go unseen by those in charge of our industries.

Along with this linear mode of thinking, inputs are emphasized, and as such large amounts of water, fossil fuel, fertilizer, herbicide, pesticide, and land are required in order to produce our food; simultaneously, outputs are also huge, in terms of food produced but also pollution and seasonal (temporary) jobs, often that exploit migrant laborers. This is industrially efficient because the externalities go unaccounted for, resulting in cheap means of production, cheap food, and also degradation of our farmlands, the lives of farm laborers, and our environment at large.

Do we, as Jews, have a responsibility to take care of the planet?

If you should regard the beings beneath you as objects without rights, not perceiving G‑d who created them, and therefore desire that they feel the might of your presumptuous mood, instead of using them only as the means of wise human activity—then G-d’s call proclaims to you, “Do not destroy anything!” Be a mensch! Only if you use the things around you for wise human purposes, sanctified by the word of My teaching, only then are you a mensch and have the right over them which I have given you as a human. However, if you destroy, if you ruin, at that moment you are not a human and have no right to the things around you. I lent them to you for wise use only; never forget that I lent them to you. As soon as you use them unwisely, be it the greatest or the smallest, you commit treachery against My world, you commit murder and robbery against My property, you sin against Me! In truth, there is no one nearer to idolatry than one who can disregard the fact that all things are the creatures and property of G-d, and who then presumes to have the right, because he has the might, to destroy them according to a presumptuous act of will. Yes, that one is already serving the most powerful idols—anger, pride, and above all ego, which in its passion regards itself as the master of things. (Horeb, sections 397, 398 - R. Shimshon Rephael HIrsch 1808-1888)

יומא חד הוה אזל באורחא חזייה לההוא גברא דהוה נטע חרובא אמר ליה האי עד כמה שנין טעין אמר ליה עד שבעין שנין אמר ליה פשיטא לך דחיית שבעין שנין אמר ליה האי [גברא] עלמא בחרובא אשכחתיה כי היכי דשתלי לי אבהתי שתלי נמי לבראי
One day, he was walking along the road when he saw a certain man planting a carob tree. Ḥoni said to him: This tree, after how many years will it bear fruit? The man said to him: It will not produce fruit until seventy years have passed. Ḥoni said to him: Is it obvious to you that you will live seventy years, that you expect to benefit from this tree? He said to him: That man himself found a world full of carob trees. Just as my ancestors planted for me, I too am planting for my descendants.

In what ways can combatting food waste plant a better world for our descendants?


We as Jews are instructed that we have been provided with abundance and as such will not be bereft if we leave some behind but instead need to share that with those among us who are needy.

(ט) וּֽבְקֻצְרְכֶם֙ אֶת־קְצִ֣יר אַרְצְכֶ֔ם לֹ֧א תְכַלֶּ֛ה פְּאַ֥ת שָׂדְךָ֖ לִקְצֹ֑ר וְלֶ֥קֶט קְצִֽירְךָ֖ לֹ֥א תְלַקֵּֽט׃ (י) וְכַרְמְךָ֙ לֹ֣א תְעוֹלֵ֔ל וּפֶ֥רֶט כַּרְמְךָ֖ לֹ֣א תְלַקֵּ֑ט לֶֽעָנִ֤י וְלַגֵּר֙ תַּעֲזֹ֣ב אֹתָ֔ם אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃
(9) When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. (10) You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the LORD am your God.
(יג) חַ֧ג הַסֻּכֹּ֛ת תַּעֲשֶׂ֥ה לְךָ֖ שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֑ים בְּאָ֨סְפְּךָ֔ מִֽגָּרְנְךָ֖ וּמִיִּקְבֶֽךָ׃
(13) After the ingathering from your threshing floor and your vat, you shall hold the Feast of Booths for seven days.
(א) באספך. בִּזְמַן הָאָסִיף שֶׁאַתָּה מַכְנִיס לַבַּיִת פֵּרוֹת הַקַּיִץ; דָּ"אַ — באספך מגרנך ומיקבך, לִמֵּד שֶׁמְּסַכְּכִין אֶת הַסֻּכָּה בִּפְסֹלֶת גֹּרֶן וָיָקֶב (ראש השנה י"ג; סוכה י"ב):
(1) באספך [THOU SHALT KEEP THE FESTIVAL OF TABERNACLES …] AFTER THAT THOU HAST GATHERED IN THE PRODUCE — i.e. at the usual harvest time, when thou bringest into the house the summer fruits. Another explanation is: באספך מגרנך ומיקבך teaches that one should cover the Succah only with the פסולת (lit., the chips, — that which falls off) of the barn and the wine-press [i.e. with vegetable matter] (Rosh Hashanah 13a; Sukkah 12a).

Feeding the Hungry

We are faced with a discrepancy: food overproduction and waste but also food insecurity. This points to a food distribution problem, not a lack of food.

We know that 1 in 8 people in the US are food insecure, meaning they do not have consistent or reliable ways to access food that fulfills all of their nutritional needs or those of their families.

This is an externality that can compound with the effects of the treatment of farm and food industry workers, as well as the asthma and illness that affects underserved communities who live near and around our industrial centers (that are necessary for processing food or delivering the fuel to produce our food). You are more likely to find coal plants in Black communities, for example, and the city planning that responsible for removing community assets like grocery stores while introducing polluting entities is called “environmental racism”.

In what ways, as Jews, are we obligated to help the poor, underserved, and hungry members of our communities and those live amongst us?

(ז) כִּי יִהְיֶה בְךָ אֶבְיוֹן מֵאַחַד אַחֶיךָ בְּאַחַד שְׁעָרֶיךָ בְּאַרְצְךָ אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ לֹא תְאַמֵּץ אֶת לְבָבְךָ וְלֹא תִקְפֹּץ אֶת יָדְךָ מֵאָחִיךָ הָאֶבְיוֹן. (ח) כִּי פָתֹחַ תִּפְתַּח אֶת יָדְךָ לוֹ וְהַעֲבֵט תַּעֲבִיטֶנּוּ דֵּי מַחְסֹרוֹ אֲשֶׁר יֶחְסַר לוֹ.

(7) If there be among you a needy person, one of your community, within any of your gates, in your land which Adonai thy God giveth thee, you shall not harden thy heart, nor shut your hand from your needy brother; (8) but you shall surely open thy hand to him, and shall surely lend him sufficient for his need in that which he is lacking.

(ז) ... ואבד העושר ההוא בענין רע, שהשיב לאותו העני בענין רע ואמר לו: לית את אזיל לעי ונגיס?! חמי שקיין, חמי כרעין, חמי כרסוון, חמי קפרן! אמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא: לא דייך שלא נתת לו משלך מאומה, אלא במה שנתתי לו את משים בו עין רעה!
...The rich man may say to the poor one: "Why don't you go out and work at a job?! Look at those thighs! Look at those shanks! Look what a great belly (you have)!"
The Holy One will then say to the rich man: Is it not enough for you that you gave him nothing of yours! Must you also cast a mocking eye on what I gave him?!

While a common response to food insecurity is to point out health problems such as obesity and heart disease that plague underserved communities, this is another symptom of malnutrition in a system that precludes access to healthier foods.

Problems like lack of a livable wage and rising housing costs in addition to food geography are the systematic problems here because they limit the choices people can make about their food. For example, if people have to work longer hours to continue living in their home, they will not have time or monetary resources to procure healthy food for their families.


In order to combat food waste at a personal level, in addition to actions changing the systems highlighted above, we must curate an ethic of gratitude around our food.

How, as Jews, are we commanded to do this, and what are the guidelines?

אמר רב יהודה אמר שמואל כל הנהנה מן העוה"ז בלא ברכה כאילו נהנה מקדשי שמים שנא' (תהלים כד, א) לה' הארץ ומלואה ר' לוי רמי כתיב לה' הארץ ומלואה וכתיב (תהלים קטו, טז) השמים שמים לה' והארץ נתן לבני אדם לא קשיא כאן קודם ברכה
Similarly, Rav Yehuda said that Shmuel said: One who derives benefit from this world without a blessing, it is as if he enjoyed objects consecrated to the heavens, as it is stated: “The earth and all it contains is the Lord’s, the world and all those who live in it” (Psalms 24:1). Rabbi Levi expressed this concept differently. Rabbi Levi raised a contradiction: It is written: “The earth and all it contains is the Lord’s,” and it is written elsewhere: “The heavens are the Lord’s and the earth He has given over to mankind” (Psalms 115:16). There is clearly a contradiction with regard to whom the earth belongs. He himself resolves the contradiction: This is not difficult. Here, the verse that says that the earth is the Lord’s refers to the situation before a blessing is recited,

Surplus versus waste

How do we understand food surplus and change our language around it to reimagine our food waste as edible and good?

וכל פניא דמעלי שבתא הוה משדר שלוחא לשוקא וכל ירקא דהוה פייש להו לגינאי זבין ליה ושדי ליה לנהרא וליתביה לעניים זמנין דסמכא דעתייהו ולא אתו למיזבן ולשדייה לבהמה קסבר מאכל אדם אין מאכילין לבהמה ולא ליזבניה כלל נמצאת מכשילן לעתיד לבא
Rafram bar Pappa further relates: And every Shabbat eve, in the afternoon, Rav Huna would send a messenger to the marketplace, and he would purchase all the vegetables that were left with the gardeners who sold their crops, and throw them into the river. The Gemara asks: But why did he throw out the vegetables? Let him give them to the poor. The Gemara answers: If he did this, the poor would sometimes rely on the fact that Rav Huna would hand out vegetables, and they would not come to purchase any. This would ruin the gardeners’ livelihood. The Gemara further asks: And let him throw them to the animals. The Gemara answers: He holds that human food may not be fed to animals, as this is a display of contempt for the food. The Gemara objects: But if Rav Huna could not use them in any way, he should not purchase the vegetables at all. The Gemara answers: If nothing is done, you would have been found to have caused a stumbling block for them in the future. If the vegetable sellers see that some of their produce is left unsold, the next week they will not bring enough for Shabbat. Therefore, Rav Huna made sure that the vegetables were all bought, so that the sellers would continue to bring them.

How do we interpret this text in a context of systemic overproduction?

Does this contradict all of the teachings above?

What can I do about it?

Share your Shabbat dinner by opening your doors and sharing food

Donate to your local food bank

Rescue food from your organization following these guidelines and bring to a local recipient, or find a local food rescue service to volunteer with such as Food Recovery Network or Boulder Food Rescue (protected under the Bill Emerson Food Donation Act)

Save food through urban harvesting: https://fallingfruit.org/

Learn how to portion for your family and save food for longer: http://www.savethefood.com/

Learn about expiration dates and food waste with this Interactive Quiz from Sustainable America