Parashat Masei

Lessons for Regional Planning

The biblical migrash principle provides a response to urban sprawl.

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

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).

Contemporary Application?

Do Jews observe the laws of migrash today? To address this question, we need a bit of historical perspective. After the destruction of the second temple, we lost political sovereignty and were exiled from our land. For almost two thousand years, we were not able to realize this mitzvah (commandment) because we lacked our own sovereign cities in the land of Israel. We were aliens in other people's lands.

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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.