Urban sprawl is one of the prominent contemporary environmental concerns. It is, understandably, a modern issue that started at the time of the industrial revolution. Oddly enough, however, it is a dilemma that the Torah appears to have considered, even in the days when many cities were growth-limited due to surrounding walls.

Command the children of Israel to give the Levites cities in which to dwell from among their (the Israelites’) inheritance. They shall live in these cities, and the open land shall be for their cattle, and for their substance, and for all their beasts…from the wall of the city until 1,000 cubits round, And you shall measure without the city 2,000 cubits eastward, 2,000 cubits southward, 2,000 cubits westward and 2,000 cubits northward, the city being in the middle. This shall be to them the open land about the cities (Numbers 35:2-5).

Once the Israelites inhabited the land of Israel, they were to give the Levites (the only tribe that did not receive a portion of land) cities in which to live. The above law ordaining that green space be established around the city was put into effect for all cities, not just those given to the Levites.

Although this law enforces a perimeter of green space, it does not prohibit urban sprawl since the green space can simply be moved outward. However, there is an interesting related Mishna:

One may not turn a field into a city’s outskirts, nor a city’s outskirts into a field, nor a city’s outskirts into a city, nor a city into a city’s outskirts. Rabbi Eleazar said: this applies only to the cities of the Levites, but in the cities of the Israelites one may turn a field into a city’s outskirts, but not a city’s outskirts into a field (Arachin 33b).

Written in honor of Earth Day, April 22, 2012.

Copyright © 2012 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

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