Why plastic cups should not be kosher for kiddush

Disposed plastic is harming sea life - we should change our habits


We’re hurting marine life on a global scale. That was the stark message at the end of David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II TV series. Though much of our litter is taken to landfill sites, millions of tonnes also end up in the sea. Due to ocean currents and surface winds, vast swathes of plastic are now floating in all the world’s seas. Much of this material will take centuries to decompose. Seabirds, fish, crustaceans and mammals mistake it for food with disastrous results.

All this made me think about how much we rely on disposable plastic for traditional Judaism. Major supermarkets now charge a fee for plastic bags, which reduces their usage and encourages people to bring their own reusable ones, but our kosher shops are smaller and give the bags away for free. On a regular Friday I could come home with as many as ten plastic bags from shopping at a kosher bakery, butcher and deli. And then there is the copious use of plastic cutlery, plates, trays and containers. During a long Yomtov or busy Shabbat, hospitable families often find it easier to use plastic for whole meals. Many kosher events have food delivered on huge plastic platters and containers, not to mention all the drinks in plastic bottles. Isn’t it all a bit too much?

It is somewhat ironic that Judaism which is a faith for all time is now so reliant on plastic items which are often only used one time. Some might argue that religious practice is hard enough, so if using disposable plastic makes it easier to perform God’s mitzvot, then what’s the problem? But it’s not that simple…

The biblical law against needless destruction is well known. Based on the phrase, lo tashchit, “do not destroy” (Deuteronomy 20:19-20), the Torah warns us not even to cut down fruit trees in order to wage a battle against our enemies. The talmudic sages explained that this prohibition is not limited to wartime or just fruit trees, but can even apply when performing a mitzvah: “Rabbi Elazar said: One who rends their garments excessively to mourn a dead person transgresses lo tashchit” (Bava Kamma 91b).

So even when a mourner performs the mitzvah of tearing their clothing as an expression of emotional distress for the loss of a close relative, it should be done in a measured manner. Further tearing would be needlessly destructive. Maimonides codifies this in law, “Anyone who breaks utensils, tears garments, destroys buildings, stops up a spring, or ruins food with a destructive intent transgresses the command ‘Do not destroy’” (Laws of Kings 6:8,10). 

It is clear that “destructive intent” includes needless damage, because it is wasteful and gratuitous. I would suggest the same logic could be applied to our reliance on disposable plastic. Not only is it wasteful but, as we have now come to realise, it is causing long-term damage to our environment. 

Attenborough’s message caught the attention of politicians, but the truth is  EU legislation is well on its way to dramatically reduce production of non-biodegradable plastics. Plastic cutlery and straws could soon become a thing of the past.

Torah legislation predates all this, but it needs to be suitably applied in our modern context. God gave humankind “dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the sky and cattle” (Genesis 1:26), but with dominion comes responsibility. Jewish law demands we feed our animals before ourselves as well as banning hunting, so surely we must take care not to harm marine life?

I now carry a foldable bag in my pocket most of the time and I politely refuse any new plastic bags at kosher stores. It is surprisingly inconvenient, but I’m trying. We avoid using disposable cutlery and plates and we barely buy plastic water bottles, refilling the ones we have instead. You might say practising Jews are so small in number that all this hardly makes a difference, but changes in perspective and lifestyle can influence wider change. 

According to an often-cited midrash on Lamentations (7:13), when God gave the first human beings a tour of the Garden of Eden, telling them:  “See how beautiful and balanced are My works. All that I have created, I did it for you. Be careful that you do not corrupt and destroy My universe; for if you do, there is no one to repair it after you.” 

When this text was written, well over a thousand years ago, who would have thought that one day humanity would have gained the ability to actually contaminate the seas and pollute the air on a global scale? The Midrash starkly reminds us that our world is not disposable. God will not press the reset button if it all goes irrevocably wrong. 

Being “plastic” has become a euphemism for a materialistic or fake person, someone who looks good but has no depth. In every sense, we must not become plastic Jews.

Rabbi Dr Zarum is dean of the London School of Jewish Studies

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