The Birthday of Creation & Its Seventh Day: Rosh Hashanah & Shabbat

By Aura Ahuvia

[Auvia is a rabbinical student in the ALEPH smikha program. This project was part of a course on Eco-Judaism taught by Rabbi Arthur Waskow.]

My goal for this project is to teach that allowing the earth to rest on Shabbat is a crucial Jewish value. The reasons for this are twofold;

fFrst, we need down time to rest and rejuvenate. Shabbat observance within this context becomes a teaching in trust—trust that the earth will provide for our needs—air, food, shelter—even as we cease laboring to draw these needs from it.

Second, just as our bodies thrive with healthy food, but grow sick if we ingest poison; so too does the earth thrive when its creatures live in harmony with it, but grows sick when toxins are developed and then poured back, in concentrated form, into the air, water and ground. A new Shabbat practice will not only enable the earth to rest, but will additionally demand that we begin to take steps to reduce the harm that our technology is inflicting on the ecosystem.

While the notion of resting on Shabbat may seem obvious already, I would argue that it is not. Most of the Jews in my kahal will be familiar with the two predominant modes of Shabbat observance: either ignoring Shabbat, for the most part, or observing it so strictly that electric appliances, building elevators and stoves are run at maximum usage, to enable the people’s work to be limited to lifting a blech or a curtain.

The notion that the earth needs to rest too, however, will be new for most of my congregation. Nevertheless, it is vital if our practice as Jews is to be meaningful within today’s context of environmental destruction. We must find new ways to realign our behavior with environmentally sensitive practices. Reframing our understanding of Shabbat in terms of permitting the earth time to rest and rejuvenate will permit us to do so as Jews.

I found Rosh Hashanah to be an ideal time to introduce this new framework for two reasons. For one, the Reconstructionist machzor’s alternative Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah is the creation story found in Breisheet. For another, Yom Kippur is additionally referred to as Shabbat Shabbaton, or the Shabbat of Shabbatot. Teachings, kavannot, prayers, silence, songs and discussion can all deepen the service for congregants. In order to enable the energy from new ways of thinking to flow into constructive new behaviors, I’ve suggested a few strategies for follow-through over the year.

My primary means of introducing the new concept will be via sermon on Rosh Hashanah, paired with meaningful music choices, and reinforced by in-seat discussion, story-sharing at the microphone (a tradition at our congregation for the last few years), and by the resonances emanating from the reading of Breisheet during the Torah service as well as from the other prayers. On Yom Kippur, the idea will be further explored during the communal Al Heyt, which will incorporate sins committed against the earth and the environment (explained below). Then, in the weeks and months which follow, the idea will be implemented via active participation in local environmental initiatives for our congregation, for its school, and in cooperation with other area churches and mosques. Ultimately, I hope this new conceptualization of Shabbat will become relevant, deeply meaningful, and a spur to action for more congregants.

Advance Preparation Needed:

Much advance preparation will be needed to build support for this environmental initiative. This would range from small details, such as printing handouts, to large issues like soliciting support from the board and from environmentally-concerned members of our congregation in advance. Here is a detailed list of such preparation.

1. For the Rosh Hashanah sermon itself, I’d need to print out handouts with the key questions on them (see sermon). It would further include the biblical proof text for Shabbat found in Breisheet.
3. For the Yom Kippur Al Heyt, I’ll need to construct “Sins Boxes” in advance, and announce what we’ll be doing with them starting on Rosh Hashanah. Over the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Havurah members will be invited to write down sins on index cards. There will be three categories: Sins against self/family; Sins against community/world community, and Sins again the earth. They will be asked to bring these index cards to services on Yom Kippur, and put them into one of the three “sins boxes” in the lobby. Then, during the Musaf service of Yom Kippur, when the traditional Al Heyt is recited, instead the lists of sins will be read. The instructions for the boxes will read thus:
a. Question #1: Looking back on your year, what are the sins that you committed, either in ways you let your own SELF down, or in ways that harmed your FAMILY?
c. Question #2: Looking back on your year, what are the sins that you committed, either in ways you let your own COMMUNITY down, or in ways that harmed (or resulted in harm to) the WORLD COMMUNITY?
e. Question #3: Looking back on your year, what are the sins that you committed, either in ways you let your own ENVIRONMENT down, or in ways that harmed (or resulted in harm to) the EARTH?
f. I would include the following instructions near the boxes.

What are these boxes for? As part of Yom Kippur services, we will read our collective sins aloud. Write your answers to the questions on each box on index cards, and drop it inside. Please keep your answers anonymous (i.e. do not sign them, OR include anyone else’s names, place names, etc.). These will be read during the Musaf (concluding) service of the morning/early afternoon.

5. For the active participation in local initiatives, I’d need to submit a proposal to the board in the early spring, explaining my idea and seeking their permission to run with it. The proposal would outline steps for:
a. Helping establish two new environmental action groups within our congregation. One group would be primarily of congregants; the second group would be more family oriented, and organized through the religious school.
c. Helping the groups obtain the support they need, such as publicity and additional volunteers.
e. Making space for the two groups to weave their work into future Kabbalat Shabbat services in some way, by giving updates, for example.
g. Following up on Shavuot, by tying the results of this volunteer work into the fruits of study on Shavuot, and letting each group share and show off what they’ve accomplished so far.
7. Once approval from the board is obtained, begin publicizing the fact that a new environmental initiative will be launched on Rosh Hashanah, and publishing key Jewish environmental texts, in our monthly e-publication, The Grapevine.
9. Solicit leaders for both initiatives (congregational and school). Also, obtain support from key congregants in advance. Ask them for their ideas, so that those can be incorporated into the sermon. This will also help them to be more invested in the initiative.

Rosh Hashanah

Sermon, Music, and Sharing

Song: Mah norah hamakom hazeh (Shefa Gold). We stand on holy ground.

Song: Carlebach’s “The whole wide world is waiting to sing a song of Shabbos,” to the tune for “Mizmor mizmor shir.” We’ll use this as an opening song prior to the sermon, as well as a closing kavannah to meditate to for an extended period afterward.

My thinking with this musical choice is that at first, people might find it puzzling to be singing these words, but after the learning embedded in the sermon, the meaning would grow clear.


Ordinarily, Jews have a tradition of reading about the birth of Isaac for the morning Torah reading on Rosh Hashanah. However, the Reform movement introduced an alternative reading roughly 50 years ago, the opening parasha of the Torah, Breisheet, in lieu of this. The Reconstructionist movement adopted this idea, incorporating it as an acceptable alternative Torah reading on Rosh Hashanah (Gen 1:1 – 2:3). We will be reading this alternative parasha this year.

Why the creation story? One reason is that Rosh Hashanah is thematically tied to the birthday of the world. It is a time of year when we turn from exclusively Jewish themes to the more universalistic notion that all humans on the planet share in existence, and that we are all tied together by the notion of creation.

A second, more particularistic reason is because in the Torah, the creation story includes the story of Shabbat, a day of rest, for the whole earth. Indeed, the day of Yom Kippur, which takes place exactly 10 days from now, is traditionally known as a Shabbat Shabbaton, a “Shabbat of Shabbats,” or as close to the “distilled essence” of Shabbat as Jewish tradition can get. In today’s environmentally stressed times, the importance of Shabbat is magnified. I’d like to address how for the remainder of this talk.

The need to give the earth a rest

Ordinarily, we learn about Shabbat in connection with ceasing to work. But I learned a nuance which helped me reframe the concept: It isn’t that we cease to work. It is rather that we cease working ourselves. We cease working the earth. We refrain from working ourselves and the land, in order to give both a rest.

This differs slightly from the concept of ceasing to work, because simply “not working” keeps the focus on the human being. As long as the person isn’t working, they are fulfilling this commandment. Hence, we see interpretations of “not working” as including the wasteful practices of leaving lights on for the entirety of Shabbat, leaving the stove on, etc.

The new frame for the concept of ceasing to work the earth, however, turns this logic on its head. Instead of “not working” as being defined simply by what people do or refrain from doing, attention shifts from the person alone to the relationship between people and the earth. This relationship is what we call “covenant.”

A covenant is a living relationship between two parties. Both parties enter into it for mutual benefit. In Breisheet, Shabbat is the covenant that God makes with humankind. It’s the relationship we have with the earth and other living organisms that keeps us alive. We humans do not live in a vacuum. Were it not for the trees, plants and other animals, we could not live. Therefore, covenant is the relationship which sustains us. When we observe our covenant, when we respect the relationship we have with the earth and other living organisms that keeps us alive, then our environment rejuvenates in a way that enables us to breathe clean air, drink fresh water, etc. In this reconceptualization, we make intimate once more our relationship with the earth.

The origin for this framework comes in part from research by Donald O. Henry and William C. Brice, quoted by Evan Eisenberg, which dated Shabbat to the dawn of man’s transition from hunting-gathering society to a more location-bound, agricultural society. When this transition occurred, it required an increase in labor to ensure that crops would grow. According to this view, the mythic Garden of Eden story is really the story of our society prior to agriculture, and getting “kicked out of the Garden” is really the tale of coming under the influence and to some extent the domination of ancient Sumerian culture, with its seed planting and irrigation techniques. Adam and Eve’s punishments, to earn bread by the sweat of their brow and to suffer pangs in childbirth, may reference the additional work agriculture demanded, as well as the increase in the difficulty of child birth when one walks less. Agricultural labor can be demanding enough to require daily work. If this research is correct, then it is possible that developing a day of rest every seven days was early hunter-gatherer society’s way of adapting, by avoiding working themselves to death.

This research holds interesting implications for us, even today. For one, it maintains a prehistoric memory of idyllic living in harmony with nature. Secondly, it further instructs us that healthy living is rooted in regularized down-time for people. Thirdly, it implies that nature, too, requires down-time. Beyond down-time, nature requires harmonious interconnection. Our global shifting of the ratio between carbon dioxide and oxygen is threatening nature’s ability to rejuvenate.

Scientists have suggested that the earth’s atmosphere has a tipping point, beyond which the balance between oxygen and carbon dioxide will not be able to right itself for life as it exists today. Given that other planets have atmospheres made of nitrogen, hydrogen, carbon dioxide and other gasses, it is not inconceivable that the earth, too, could end up this way. What is more, prior to the rise of oxygen-breathing organisms on our planet, there was an eon during which carbon-dioxide-breathing bacteria reigned. These bacteria caused their own undoing because they produced oxygen, but there was no organism alive on earth at the time which breathed it. It therefore died out. When it did so, the atmosphere of this young earth collapsed, giving rise to life as we know it today.

In light of today’s research on the dangers of global warming, over-use of non-renewable resources, and unsustainable growth, it is both conceivable and terrifying that we may push the earth’s atmosphere beyond the tipping point, resulting in the collapse of all oxygen-breathing life on the planet. Humanity seems to be on this precipice now, within our lifetimes, and those of our children. Our holy ground is giving way beneath us.

So to a new framework in which to contextualize Shabbat becomes an urgent matter. If Shabbat is about ceasing to work ourselves and ceasing to work the earth, then ceasing (to the extent possible) to use electricity, draw water, and harvest food becomes the standard by which to measure observance of Shabbat. It sounds Kairitic, perhaps, but is unintentionally so, for this new practice is not about reverting to a fundamentalistic reading of scripture, but rather is about entering into a new pact with the divine, renewing our covenant of living so that we, humanity, can choose life.

What is more, our Shabbat observance must go beyond thoughts of how to cease working ourselves and the earth; it must extend to ways to reduce the pollution plaguing every aspect of our ecosystem. We are biological beings, inhabiting the only home—earth—that we’ll ever know. Our ecosystems are fragile, and we must cherish and protect them. As Jews, we can begin to do this by getting creative with the idea of how to understand and live Shabbat.

How can we act, according to a covenant which enables us to cherish and protect our environment? Admittedly, in today’s typical urban setting, ceasing to use electricity is nearly impossible. The generators dotting the land work 24 hours a day, year-round. So do the water purifying plants. Our refrigerators operate around the clock, whether we open the door or not. What’s worse, factories continue to burn coal, produce plastic and manufacture nuclear materials. Our own county continues to chop down trees, pave under fields, and allow the invasion of new big-box stores. So, practically speaking, there are real challenges to truly ceasing to work the earth every seven days. That, however, should not stop us from at least discussing what we can do about it.

Some of us are city planners, architects, farmers or backyard food growers, and engineers. How can we apply what we know professionally in the service of healthier, nature-friendly living? We can make a difference in our professional lives too, by working for high density neighborhoods with local restaurants, food stores and ice cream hangouts to reduce driving; by re-jigging school bus schedules so that our children will get to walk too. We architects and developers can encourage green roofs, extra insulation, low-watt light bulbs and rain ponds. We landscapers can plant native shrubs and plants, and discourage traditional, water-intensive green lawns. We engineers can work on developing new and renewable energy sources. We farmers and food growers can work without pesticides, herbicides or genetically modified seeds. We citizens can make those voices heard at local city council meetings, and by writing letters to our congress-people statewide and nationally. All of our voices matter. And our actions will make a difference.

What would an eco-friendly Shabbat practice look like? [the following questions would be listed on a handout]

Beyond all of this, what would a meaningful Shabbat observance look like, were we to cease working the earth? What ideas come to mind for you? And how do you feel about this? Is it important to cease working the earth once every seven days? What would happen if we didn’t? What would happen if we did?

Please turn to 3 or 4 people near to you and discuss these questions. You’ll find them in your handouts. You have 10 minutes. Then we’ll return to the full congregation, and invite comments up at the microphone.

Discussion: Allow 10 minutes for small group discussion. Then, to call everyone’s attention back, begin singing. Carlebach’s “The whole wide world is waiting to sing a song of Shabbos,” to the tune for “Mizmor mizmor shir.”

Song: Carlebach’s “The whole wide world is waiting to sing a song of Shabbos,” to the tune for “Mizmor mizmor shir.”

Sharing: Next, allow another 20 minutes for large-group sharing at the microphone. Conclude this with a slower, more meditative version of Carlebach’s song. Sing for several minutes, to allow the learning to soak in.

Song: Carlebach’s “The whole wide world is waiting to sing a song of Shabbos,” to the tune for “Mizmor mizmor shir.”

Sermon’s conclusion

I’d like for us to begin implementing some of these ideas as a congregation this coming year. What ideas really got you excited? Can we organize an internal, Havurah-based activity for ourselves, which we can do all year long? Can we organize something for the Beit Sefer [our religious school] to engage in? Can we perhaps find an activity or two that we could team up with other area mosques and churches to do, a sort of faith-based environmental cooperative movement? (Ask the two leaders of these groups to rise) Fannie and Shlomo have agreed to spearhead these initiatives. Shlomo will be the point-person for organizing the school group, while Fannie will run point for the congregation. Whoever works with Fannie and Shlomo on environmental initiatives throughout the year will receive the support of the congregation in the form of recruitment, publicity, and logistics. Fannie and Shlomo will explain the details of this. Please join or support one of these two groups in some way this year. We’ll hear updates from them at upcoming Kabbalat Shabbat services, and we’ll reflect on a near-year’s-worth of action at our Shavuot study session next May. What is your hope for the earth? How can you get started? Please join one of these groups, and you’ll have taken the crucial first step (the two leaders are seated).

How holy is this holy ground upon which we sit, with our community. This ground is the only home we have, the only home we’ll ever know. It is the ground of our being. God, let us choose life, for ourselves and our succeeding generations, that we may live, us and our seed! Mah norah hamakom hazeh. How awesome is this place.

Song: Mah norah hamakom hazeh (Shefa Gold)

Song: Eli eli

Tashlich (later that afternoon)

For Tashlich, instead of using breadcrumbs, which interfere with the local ecology, we will use leaves which have already fallen to the ground; infusing them with the sins we hope to cast away. No advanced preparation would be needed for this, as it has been our congregation’s practice for many years.

Yom Kippur, Al Heyt and Music (done during Musaf):

Song: Eli eli

Al Heyt – reading the index cards with “Sins against the earth and environment” aloud

Song: Avinu Malkeinu

Yom Kippur, Ne’ilah and Music:

Song: Pitchu li (Carlebach)

Prayer: As the gates are closing, please call out an intention you have for the coming year. What commitment do you wish to make? (Kahal keeps humming as people call things out)

Song: Those Who Sow (Debbie Friedman)

Lyrics: Those who sow in tears will reap in joy. Hazorim b’dimah, b’rinah yiktzoru.

Sing for a long time, allowing the kavanot to soak in.


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