I often see guests at simchas (celebrations) waste so much food, putting mounds on their plate. We seem to take more than we need. Should we be promoting a more responsible balance between hospitality and waste?
This is an excellent question. Certainly in Jewish tradition there is a mitzvah of not wasting, known as baal tashchit. We read in Deuteronomy 20:19-20 that “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 the trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city? Only trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed.” The point here is obvious-it is okay to take what you need, but not more than what you need. To learn more about this mitzvah and how it developed as an environmental principal, I would encourage you to look at http://www.coejl.org/learn/je_tashchit.php
But to answer your specific question, I think that there are at least two steps that a host can take to promote thoughtful consumption. The first, is to have smaller plates. While it might sound funny, a larger plate encourages one to take more than they need. If a person needs to go up again to a buffet for food, they are taking what they are interested in consuming, not what they are able to put on there plate the first time.
The second way to encourage thoughtful consumption is much more obvious. Instead of spending resources, especially at simchas, on “favors” I have seen hosts make donations in honor of each of their guests and put a sign on each table indicating this action. For example, Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger offers a variety of resources to celebrants of life-cycle events for how to make their guests more aware of the importance of responsible consumption. For more information, click here http://mazon.org/get-involved/celebrations-and-events/ Acts such as these promote thoughtful consumption and tzedakah, all at the same time.
Your desire to minimize waste – at simchas and in our daily life – is right on the mark. Both from the side of disposal (where will we put our waste) and from the side of consumption (do we really need all of this) we are a society that needs to find a better balance. That said, what are the ethical teachings that would support such a stance.
Your question is not new. Sumptuary laws, enactments against luxury and ostentation, were issued from the Middle Ages into modern times. In the 1200's Rhenish synagogues limited who could attend banquets. Decrees issued in the 15th century limited the number of guests and certain types of clothing. I know of synagogues that have done away with the use of paper goods in an attempt to minimize the waste they generate. The common concerns across all of these examples include: overuse of limited resources, a desire not to arouse jealousy among neighbors, and a certain level of modesty before the Holy One. Based on those precedents it would seem reasonable to teach both hosts and guests restraint around the ways we celebrate at our modern simchas.
A broader ethic, bal tashkhit, lest you destroy, also addresses your concern. The Sages took what seems like a very limited-use verse from the Torah and expanded it into a broad mandate for conservation. “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... you may eat of them, but you must not cut them down.” (Deuteronomy 20:19) While it sounds as if it only applies in time of war, the Sages reasoned that if you could not destroy this vital resource in times of high stress, you surely could not do so in more relaxed times. They expanded the prohibition against wantonly destroying things to include not only food, but anything that had value.
It is, nonetheless, difficult to tell someone else how to spend their resources, particularly when they are celebrating important family events. Some synagogues do share guidelines for simchas that could address the issues of extravagance and waste. Perhaps our rabbis and teachers could use sermons and classes to share these ethical teachings.
One can also use the occasion to support those within the Jewish world who are working for a more sustainable environment. Some locales have organizations that collect prepared but untouched food from events and then deliver it to local food banks and charitable agencies. One such organization is Rock and Wrap It Up (http://www.rockandwrapitup.org/) which works with schools, music venues, hotels and others. Additionally, some institutions encourage their members to enhance their celebration by making donations to Tzedakah (charity). MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger suggests a donation equivalent to 3% of the cost of the simcha as a way to honor the Jewish tradition of not eating until you have provided for the poor. One might also support American Jewish World Service or any of a number of other institutions that work to apply these ethical principles to our shared world.
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