Commentary on Parashat Masei, Numbers 33:1 - 36:13
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.” The commentator Sforno 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 parkland. 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).
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 2,000 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.
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 19th-century German writer Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. Rabbi Hirsch took a broad view of the implications of the mitzvah of migrash for both social relations and land use. He viewed 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 Beersheba, 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?
In industrialized Western countries, 98 percent of the population works away from the land, in manufacturing and service jobs. In 2005, the United Nations reported that the majority of people in the world today live in cities.
Migrash as Ideal
As city dwellers, we can certainly grow from internalizing the principle of migrash, even without apportioning an actual green belt. Migrash moderates some of the negative effects of city life, such as the alienation of a person from nature and from the source of the food they eat. That’s why migrash comes from the root legaresh, to divorce or separate, because it separates one urban area from another in an attempt to marry Jews to the natural existence God gave them in the land of Israel.
Our disconnection from nature is one of the root causes of environmental degradation, causing people to abuse resources, spread pollutants, and plan poorly for the future of our planet. A civilization can radically damage the natural world when it does not see itself as part of that world. Which city residents actually know the river to which their sewage flows during the common occurrence of storm-related flooding?
A society can squander natural resources when it is not aware how it uses them. How many of us know exactly where our electricity is produced and how the plant transports the coal for its production? And when a community does not realize its dependence on certain natural processes (such as the growth of rain forests, the reproduction of fish schools, the flow of clean water aquifers) it is unlikely to prioritize their unhindered continuation.
Judaism does not emphasize abstract, quietistic contemplation of God’s greatness. Rather, appreciation of God develops from the physical performance of mitzvot in God’s world, and leads back to appreciation of God and the world. Thus, restoring our awareness of nature and our place within it will invigorate our efforts to solve environmental problems, inspired by the mitzvot of the Torah.
This commentary is provided by special arrangement with Canfei Nesharim. To learn more, visit www.canfeinesharim.org.
Pronounced: MITZ-vuh or meetz-VAH, Origin: Hebrew, commandment, also used to mean good deed.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.