Author Archives: Jon Greenberg

Jon Greenberg

About Jon Greenberg

Jon Greenberg, Ph.D. received his Bachelor's degree with honors in biology from Brown University and his Master's and Doctorate in agronomy from Cornell University. Dr. Greenberg was a Senior Editor of science textbooks at Prentice Hall Publishing Co. and an assistant professor at the School of Education at Indiana University. He teaches science at Yeshivas Ohr Yosef.

Lessons for Regional Planning

This commentary is provided by special arrangement with Canfei Nesharim. To learn more, visit

In this week’s Torah portion, God tells Moses: “Command the Children of Israel that they shall give to the Levites, from the heritage of their possession, cities for dwelling; and open space all around the cities shall you give to the Levites. The cities shall be theirs for dwelling, and their open space shall be for their animals, for their possessions, and for all the amenities of life (Numbers 35:2-3).”

The subsequent verses specify the dimensions of this area that was to surround the Levite cities, as a belt 1,000 cubits wide, and then as 2,000 cubits wide (2,000 cubits is equivalent to between 3,000 and 4,000 feet or 914 to 1219 meters).

Rashi explains the apparent contradiction and further describes the uses of this area: “He assigned two thousand (cubits) for them around the city, of which the inner thousand was for open area and the outer (thousand) for fields and vineyards.” Seforno adds that this open space also enabled city residents to have “beehives, dovecotes, and other such items.”

Biblical Zoning Regulations

The Torah uses the Hebrew term migrash to describe this “green belt.” What is a migrash? Onkelos translates it as revah, or space. But why does the Torah require an open space around cities?

The answer is surprisingly practical. The Talmud explains that the inner belt serves to beautify the city; residents may plant trees there, but may not use the area for construction or agriculture. Rather, it is to remain open park land. The city itself is “zoned” for construction, and the outer belt for agriculture. The Talmud forbids converting land in any of these three zones to uses reserved for the others.

With this practical explanation in mind, we should not be surprised that the majority of the rabbis involved in the Talmud’s discussion of the migrash concluded that this law applies to all Jewish towns in Israel, and not just to those reserved for the Levites. Maimonides accepts this opinion as settled law (Hilkhot Shemittah V‘Yovel, 13:5).

Cultivated Cravings

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This week’s Torah portion begins on a positive, confident note. Moses is commanded to transmit the Divine instructions for lighting the oil-lamp menorah to Aaron, and to dedicate the tribe of Levi to the service of the mishkan (Tabernacle). The instructions are clear, simple, and direct, and the imagery is positive–light, bathing, cleanliness,consecration.

Yet, by the end of the parashah, the Jewish nation has degenerated to the point that they are punished with mass destruction and burial at Kivrot haTaavah, the Graves of Appetite. What ideal is symbolized by lighting of the menorah at the beginning of the parashah,and how did we fail so disastrously to achieve it?

The menorah is mentioned repeatedly in the Torah, usually in conjunction with the shulhan, the table and shelves that held the lehem panim, or “showbread.” What is the connection between these two items? The only relationship between the shulhan and the menorah that the Torah mentions is geometric: twice in the Torah we are directed that the menorah is to be placed on the southern side of the mishkan, and the shulhan on its northern side (Exodus 26:35; 40:22-25). 

Conflicting Winds

At a time when our ancestors lived in intimate contact with nature, north and south carried many important connotations. The north wind brings cool, moist air and rainclouds; the south wind (shar’av or hamsin) is hot, dry, and dusty. Like all farmers, ancient Jews hoped that each would arrive at the time when it would bebeneficial. The Talmud (Bava Batra 147a) recognizes this fact:

“The north wind is helpful to wheat when it has completed one third of its ripening, and damaging to olive trees in bloom. The south wind is damaging to wheat that is one-third ripe, and a benefit to olive trees when they are in bloom. Hence, the shulhan was placed in the north, and the menorah in the south.”

When do these winds occur? The late spring period between Passover and Shavuot is known in Hebrew as sefirah (literally ‘counting’). This name refers to the fact that the Torah gives no date for Shavuot. Rather, we are instructed to count 49 days, beginning with the second day of Passover (Leviticus 23:15-16). The 50th day is then the date of Shavuot; hence its English name ‘Pentecost.’