Parashat Masei

Lessons for Regional Planning

The biblical migrash principle provides a response to urban sprawl.

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When many of our people returned to our land in the past century, Jews began once again to build cities and farms in Israel, and a new society took shape. Vigorous and creative debates about how to observe other mitzvot of the land of Israel under modern conditions deepened our appreciation of shemittah, the jubilee year, and other neglected agricultural laws. These discussions continue to produce novel modern solutions to ancient problems.

However, the mitzvah of migrash has not yet become part of the conversations of Israeli rabbinic authorities or regional planners. Returning it to today's Jewish agenda is one of the challenges facing those who are concerned about Torah and the environment.

A major exception is the great nineteenth century German writer Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. Rabbi Hirsch takes a broad view of the implications of the mitzvah of migrash for both social relations and land use. He views this mitzvah as promoting the development of a society that combines urban sophistication and rural connectedness to the natural environment--"an urban population engaged in agriculture."

Rabbi Hirsch also sees the mitzvah of migrash as a limit to the urban sprawl that would otherwise be inevitable: "Clearly these laws place an obstacle to the growth of large cities at the expense of the surrounding country which otherwise is so very prevalent. Not even the open spaces of the city, or any part of it, may be used as building sites." 

The Garden City Movement

The commandment of migrash in the Torah inspired the "garden city movement" founded in 1898 by Sir Ebenezer Howard in the United Kingdom. A garden city was intended to be a self-contained community surrounded by a green belt, with carefully planned regions of commerce, living, and recreation. Howard himself established two such garden cities in England, which remain successful today. His ideas influenced the planning of other cities around the globe, and also influenced the British urbanist Sir Patrick Geddes in the planning of Tel-Aviv, Israel.

In the 1950s when Be'er Sheva, the largest city in Israel's Negev region was developed, it was built according to a 'garden city' plan, with small housing units generously spaced apart. However, the regional climate soon proved unsuitable for such urban planning, and neighborhoods gradually became more developed and crowded as the garden city theory was abandoned. Eventually, criticisms of the effectiveness of the 'garden city' arose, and many modern architects developed ideas radically different from those of Sir Howard.

Today, the applicability of the garden city philosophy is contested, but the mitzvah of migrash remains part of our eternal Torah. The mitzvah of migrash was a wonderful institution for our agrarian ancestors, but how could it be practiced today, when nearly 11 million people live west of the Jordan River, and the Earth's population is approaching 7 billion?

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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.