A Land Flowing With Milk & Honey

The health of the land depends on our responsible behavior.

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Provided by Canfei Nesharim, providing Torah wisdom about the importance of protecting the environment.

One of the best-recognized descriptions of the land of Israel is "a land flowing with milk and honey (Deut. 31:20)." This description immediately conjures up a picture of a rich, fertile, and desirable land–but what do the words actually mean, and what environmental implications are alluded to in this expression?

We start with the interpretation of the Talmud, which interprets the words zavat halav udvash, (flowing with milk and honey) as "milk flows from the goats’ (udders), and honey flows from the dates and the figs (Ketubot 111b)." For a pastoral people, this indeed must have been an inviting description of the land. The goats were a source of milk as well as meat, and were very prolific. In biblical times, goats were a reflection of wealth.

The Ban on Small Livestock

How surprising then that in the land of milk and honey the Jewish sages later instituted a ban on the raising of small livestock (goats and sheep) in the land of Israel–at least in the settled areas (Mishnah Bava Kama 7:7).

Rashi, in his commentary on that Mishnah, explains that the reason for the ban against raising sheep and goats in the land of Israel was due to the mitzvah of yishuv haaretz, literally settling the Land, and by extension living there in such a way that will sustain Jewish existence on the Land for an unlimited time. Although very profitable for the owner, sheep and goats are especially destructive to fields and gardens as well as other green areas.

Clearly, in their considerations for making the ban on raising sheep and goats in the land of Israel, the sages were faced with a dilemma. On one hand they needed to consider the economic benefits to those that raised sheep and goats; on the other hand they needed to consider the environmental costs, and the injury to the farmers whose crops were being damaged by them.

The sages, in prohibiting the raising of these small livestock, chose what today might be called the ‘sustainable’ path. They ruled against inappropriate development that yields a quick profit for some but damages others, and causes extensive long-term ecological damage. They determined that this was clearly not the kind of responsible development demanded by the concept of yishuv ha’aretz.

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Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Hesder Petach Tikva, is a graduate of Yeshivat Har Etzion and a retired major in the IDF. Rabbi Cherlow was amongst the founders of the Tzohar Foundation, a central Modern Orthodox foundation which works to build bridges between the religious and secular worlds.

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