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The religious and psychological reasons for keeping Shabbat are widely understood, but not many people recognize the environmental principles underlying the laws of a day of rest.

When I received the Facebook invitation for Earth Hour I immediately associated the idea with keeping Shabbat. Since the laws of being Shomer Shabbat dictate that one cannot drive or use electricity, it is essentially a mitzvah (commandment) on Shabbat to use as little energy as possible for an entire 25 hours! On Shabbat we take a whole day simply to appreciate the world around us, recognizing the importance of time over space (ie- material possessions). We take a break from creating physical, consumable things and instead create and enhance intangible things like relationships. It’s as if we “recharge our relationships instead of our cell phones”.

My environmental student group Hayerukim decided to teach about this concept as part of the University of Michigan Focus the Nation sustainable lifestyles fair. Most of the non-Jews we spoke to about the idea were sold, but the Jews were a little more skeptical. One guy made the extremely salient point that most people he knows who are Shomer Shabbat keep their lights on all of Shabbat and leave the stove on to heat up their food for lunch. When you add up all of the energy that’s wasted overnight, it’s not really any better than any other day of the week.

However, the concept of sustainability is so inherent in Shabbat that just because some current practices waste energy doesn’t mean there isn’t room to translate the Mitzvot of Shabbat into a model for sustainable living. There are two extremely simple ways to reduce your energy consumption on Shabbat to almost nil. First, you can choose only the lights that are most necessary, like one bathroom, the kitchen, and one common room, making use of natural light wherever possible. Second, you can use timers. You can put timers on any light switch and most appliances (such as an air conditioning unit or an oven/stove that you only need for a couple of hours). Limiting the amount of energy we use on Shabbat can inspire us to do the same during the rest of the week. Earth Hour? We have Earth 25 Hours every week!

In Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book The Sabbath he suggests that Shabbat, which celebrates freedom, individuality, and nature and disregards weapons of destruction, technical civilization, and economic struggle is the institution that holds out the greatest hope for human progress. For environmentalists, both Jewish and non-Jewish, progress and sustainability go hand and hand, and Shabbat can be the perfect model for this.


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