The “Green Belt” of the Torah



In the previous letter, we discussed the following message which Moshe Rebbeinu – Moses, our Teacher – conveyed to us regarding our responsibility to develop a model society which could inspire other peoples:


“See! I have taught you statutes and social laws, as Hashem, my God, has commanded me, to do so in the midst of the Land to which you come, to possess it. You shall safeguard and fulfill them, for it is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the peoples, who shall hear all these statutes and who shall say, ‘Surely a wise and understanding people is this great nation!’ ” (Deuteronomy 4:5,6)


In this letter, we will discuss a fascinating statute which we are to fulfill in the midst of the Land – the establishment of a “green belt” around the cities of Israel:


Dear Friends,


In the Torah portion of this Shabbos, we find the following mitzvah – Divine mandate:


“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 following are some laws and teachings related to the above passage:


“Open space all around the cities” – The classical biblical commentator, Rashi, explains: “This means a space – a vacant area outside the city and around it – to be an aesthetic enhancement of the city. They are not permitted to build a house there, nor plant a vineyard, nor to sow any sowing (Talmud, Arachin 33b).” Rashi later explains that the prohibition against agricultural work only applies to the inner part of the green belt; in the outer part, it is permitted.


“For their animals” – “In order that their animals can graze there.” (Rabbeinu Meyuchas – cited in “Sha’arei Aharon”)


Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah, cites the tradition that the law of having an open space around the cities does not only apply to the cities of the Levites; it applies “to all the cities of Israel” (Zeraim, Hilchos Shmittah V'Yovel 13:5). The cities of the Levites therefore served as models of urban planning for all the cities of Israel.


In one verse, it states that the length of the green belt is “one thousand cubits” (35:4), yet in the very next verse it states that the length is “two thousand cubits” (35:5). How do we understand this contradiction? In his commentary on verse 4, Rashi explains that the entire green belt is 2,000 cubits all around, and it is divided into two circles. The verse which mentions 1,000 cubits is referring to the inner circle. Rashi writes: “The inner thousand are for the open space (for beauty), and the outer thousand are for fields and vineyards (agriculture).” As a result, city residents not only have a connection to nature and its creatures; they also have the ability to do some farming!


Suppose a developer wishes to buy the entire green belt and build housing or industry on it. The developer argues that he is helping the city to grow, and city officials feel that the sale would also bring economic benefit to the city. Many residents argue, however, that they should not be deprived of the beauty of the inner green belt; moreover, their animals should not be deprived of the benefit of roaming and grazing in this green space. In addition, they do not wish to be deprived of the opportunity of farming in the outer green belt. In such a dispute, the Torah sides with the residents against the developer, as it is written, “And the open country on the outskirts of their cities must not be sold, for it is an eternal heritage for them” (Leviticus 25:42). A city can therefore not expand at the expense of the green belt. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary on this verse, explains that the laws of the Torah are designed to prevent the development of huge cities. He writes:


“These laws seem to be designed to maintain an urban population that engages in agriculture – that is to be the basic model for the nation – and to prevent the expansion of the cities into metropolises detached from the fields. The cities already in existence must not expand beyond their limits at the expense of the fields…When the population increases, new cities should be established in sites that have never been used for agricultural purposes.”


As Rashi explained, the inner green belt was a beautiful park, while the outer green belt was used for agriculture. What if some residents who love farming would like to expand the outer green belt by buying the inner green belt and turning it into farm land? And what if some residents who love the beauty of nature would like to expand the inner green belt by buying the outer green belt used for agriculture and turning it into a park? In addition, what if some nature lovers who dislike cities would like to buy houses within the city, evict the residents, and turn the area into an extension of the greenbelt? According to the Talmud, the sale would be forbidden in each of these cases, as the original purpose of the city, the inner green belt, and the outer green belt must be preserved (Erchin 33b). As Rashi explains in his commentary on the Talmud, each area – the city, the park, and the farm land – serves a valuable purpose; thus, one area must not expand at the expense of the other!


Cities serve as economic, cultural, and spiritual centers; however, from the holistic perspective of the Torah, cities must provide their residents with a connection to nature and with the opportunity to cultivate the earth. Even urban dwellers are to experience the following messianic blessing: “They shall sit, each person under his vine and under his fig tree” (Micah 4:4).


As mentioned above, the above laws apply to all the cities of Israel. Why, then, does the Torah emphasize the cities of the Levites, when it discusses these ecological laws? Before answering this question, we need to remember that there are twelve tribes of Israel, and that the members of the tribe of Levi – including the Kohanim, the descendants of Aaron – were appointed to serve as teachers and spiritual guides to the entire nation. They did not receive a portion in the Land of Israel; instead, they dwelt in separate cities that were to serve as centers of Torah. A reference to their special role is found in the following blessing that Moses gave to the tribe of Levi:


“They shall teach Your ordinances to Jacob and Your Torah to Israel” (Deuteronomy 33:10).


We can now begin to understand why the Torah emphasizes the cities of the Levites. As centers of Torah for all the people, these cities were to serve as models of the holistic Divine teachings. As King David stated (Psalm 19:8): “Toras Hashem temimah” – The Torah of the Compassionate One is holistic.


Have a Shabbat Shalom,

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)


Related Teachings:


1. According to Maimonides, the entire green belt was 3,000 cubits; the inner green belt was 1,000 cubits, and the outer green belt was 2,000 cubits (Hilchos Shmittah V’Yovel 13:2). The Sefer Hachinuch, a classical work on the Torah’s 613 mitzvos, states that the outer green belt – the vineyards and fields of produce – also contributed to the beauty of the city (Mitzvah 342).


2. The purpose of the above article is to discuss the general principles of the “halacha” – the detailed steps of the Torah path – regarding the green belt; however, it is not meant to serve as a final statement on how the halacha is to be applied today, when we are in the process of renewing the Land of Israel and absorbing some of the scattered exiles of our people. Regarding the application of the halacha today, we need seek the guidance of the leading Torah sages of our generation.


3. A related article, “The Park Versus the Synagogue,” appears on our website.

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