Grapes, goats, and greenbelts: Sustainability in Israel

May we embrace sustainable living as an act of profound religious significance, and merit to live once again within a Garden of Eden.

Birkat ha Ilan (blessing trees)_311 (photo credit: Mordechai I. Twersky)
Birkat ha Ilan (blessing trees)_311
(photo credit: Mordechai I. Twersky)
At different times in the past 3500 years, the Jewish people have been involved in growing crops, tending fruit trees, and shepherding animals in the Land of Israel. These activities were critical to provide food to sustain Jews living in Israel. Yet they have also presented challenges to environmental sustainability in the Land. This article explores what Jewish tradition can teach us about living in balance in the Land of Israel for the long-term.
Abraham and Sarah came to Israel 3748 years ago, and since then over 1600 years involved significant population of Jews living in the Land of Israel. How did they manage to live in the Land for so long? While the Torah teaches that Divine Providence (in response to the people following the commandments) played the fundamental role, the Oral Tradition as redacted in the Mishna also provides instructive guidelines for living in the Land of Israel.
The time period before and after the destruction of the Second Temple (20 CE to 200 CE, also known as the Mishnaic period) was a period of increased demand on the natural resources of the Land of Israel. During this time, historians estimate that the Jewish and gentile population expanded to about 2.1 million inhabitants, fed in good part from grain, wine, and oil produced in Israel. At this time and for centuries afterward, most Jews still farmed the Land.
Voracious Goats
The Torah often describes the Land of Israel as "a land flowing with milk and honey." The Talmud interprets this to mean “milk flows from the goats' udders, and honey flows from the dates and the figs.” (Tractate Ketubot 111b.) From this, one can understand the significance of goats and shepherding to Israeli society. Historians note that some herders raised flocks of sheep and goats in great numbers.
Goats and sheep are voracious herbivores, and the rabbis in the times of the Mishna and Talmud witnessed the impact these animals had in devouring crops in fields. In response to the threat to crops posed by goats and sheep in the Land of Israel, the Mishna prohibited raising goats and sheep in agriculturally-productive parts of Israel (Bava Kama 7:7). According to Rashi, the Mishna aimed to ensure the fulfillment of the mitzvah (command) of settling the Land of Israel. The flocks were entering farmers' fields and eating agricultural crops-- therefore they were prohibited.   
The Mishna prevented these animals from harming farmers' crops by preventing Jews from raising them in settled parts of Israel. Clearly, the problem was widespread and understood as causing significant damage, leading the sages to place severe limitations to protect crops and the land.     Fruit trees, or Temple firewood?
Each day, in the Temple in Jerusalem, a significant amount of wood was burned, in fulfillment of three different commandments. Despite the substantial need for wood for use in the Temple, the Mishna prohibited using olive wood, grapevines and fruit-bearing fig trees and date palms for this purpose. By preventing their use in the Temple, this law protected these trees from being cut down for this purpose.
According to the view of the Talmudic sage, Rav Acha bar Ya'akov, the reason was because of the settlement of the Land of Israel. The commentator Mefaresh explains: "What is the meaning of 'because of the settlement of the Land of Israel?' Since if they would burn the olive trees and grapevines, there would not be found wine to drink or oil to anoint with, and the Land of Israel would be destroyed."
According to Mefaresh's explanation, burning olive trees and grapevines as firewood—even for the holiest of fires in the Temple—would diminish the availability of olives and grapes for human consumption. It appears that the Mishna was concerned that the scale of fruit-tree cutting would be so great as to make the Land of Israel unfit for human settlement. About olives, Rabbi Louis Rabinowitz writes that “its supreme importance lay in its valuable oil, valuable because it not only was the main source of essential fats but had the added value that it could be preserved indefinitely without going rancid.” An Israel stripped of its two most productive, climate-appropriate species—olive trees and grapevines—would not be able to sustain a robust population depending on the fruit of its soil. Therefore the Sages forbid cutting down these species for Temple firewood. This law preserved the economic and agricultural viability of Jewish settlement.
In modern and historical societies throughout the world, the cutting of trees has caused dramatic environmental damage, leading to pollution, flooding, and desertification, reducing available tree resources (such as grapes and olives), and causing inhabitants to have to travel great distances to find additional wood for construction, cooking and heat. In modern times, the scale of tree-cutting, including of fruit trees, far eclipses that of the Mishnaic era. A recent book, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, details the cycle of wood cutting and the stress it causes subsistence farmers in Africa even today. Our Sages sought to prevent such damage in ancient Israel with their decrees.
Preserving farmland and the fertility of the soil
In addition to protecting crops and wood, Jewish tradition for life in the land of Israel also seeks to preserve farmland itself. Jewish law requires that land be designated for specific essential purposes—food production, animal grazing, open space, and urban areas. One example concerns the mitzvah of maintaining open space (migrash) around the cities of the Land of Israel. The Torah commands that open spaces be established around the 42 Levite cities (Numbers 35:2-3). The Sages understood that all Jewish cities in Israel should observe this command (Talmud, Bava Batra 24b). In addition, the Mishna contains a further ruling —for the settling of the Land of Israel – forbidding turning farmland into open space and vice versa, or open space into cities and vice versa (Arachim 33b). Rashi explains that the law aimed to maintain a proper balance of farmland for agriculture, greenbelt for aesthetics, and city for settlement. He continues that the reason farmland cannot be made into a greenbelt is so as to not reduce the area available for sowing crops.  
The widespread phenomenon in Israel, North America, and throughout the world—of converting farmland and open space to suburban housing and offices—is forbidden by this Mishna. While the topic of Jewish sustainable urban planning is beyond the scope of this article, the Sages clearly saw the need to preserve balance in settlement in the Land of Israel. The reason appears to be out of concern for sufficient farmland and grazing area, over the long-term, to supply millions of people living in the Land. The Oral tradition demonstrates an understanding of the long-term needs of providing land and food to the inhabitants, rather than the short-term pressures that might have encouraged the “redistricting” of land for different purposes.
Another related example is a Rabbinic decree to protect the land of a person who was taken captive. The rabbis prevented the temporary user of the captive person's land from exploiting the land in a way that might weaken the land's fertility. The source for this ruling is the Talmud, which says that "the Rabbis made a decree in order that [the tenant] would not degrade it [the field]" (Bava Metzia 39a). Under this decree, the tenant who was working the field of his captive relative is considered as a sharecropper (aris) on the land. Such a person works a field for its owner and receives a portion of the produce in return.
The Sages’ ruling established the legal status of such a tenant as a person who is invested in the long-term fertility of the field. Otherwise, without knowing when the captive might return, this short-term farmer had a short-term incentive to extract produce and profit from the field without investing in its long-term sustainability. As Rashi explains, the Sages’ decree prevents a situation in which the relative will likely "not fertilize the land with manure and he will plant incessantly and cause the land to deteriorate.” 
Here the concern is not for the sustainability of the Land of Israel in general but the soil fertility of the land of an individual Jew who has been taken captive. This concern for soil-fertility is particularly significant in light of the Pulitzer-prize winning author Dr. Jared Diamond's linkage of soil fertility to the long-term sustainability of societies, and its lack as a key factor in their decline.    Lessons in long-term thinking     These laws, in providing us clues as to how the Jewish people lived on the Land for so long, underscore the importance of national thinking and planning for sustainability, and elucidate Jewish values which may help us address current and future challenges.
In Israel today, it is a challenge to live sustainably. The current population is likely about five times larger than it was at its peak before the Temple was destroyed. The state of Israel struggles with ensuring water access to ten million inhabitants west of the Jordan River. Per capita water consumption has also multiplied, due to the ease and cheapness of piped-water. In addition, Israel suffers from significant air pollution, caused in part from vehicular emissions and coal and gas-burning power plants on the coast.
The ancient wisdom of our tradition can provide some clues to help us find ways to sustain ourselves on the Land. Several ongoing projects seem to build upon this ancient wisdom and apply it to today. For example, one innovative, experimental project underway in Jerusalem seeks to purify and recycle waste-water from mikvehs (ritual baths) for use in irrigation. The project may be expanded to recycle water from sinks and washing machines. Such reuse of water may be one way to encourage more wise use of this precious resource, in Israeli and beyond.
Other exciting projects aim to harness the sun's rays to heat water and thus reduce electricity demand. For example, the Good Energy Initiative works to provide financial incentives to poorer families in Israel to use solar water heaters instead of conventional heaters that rely on burning fossil fuels.
Ultimately, the rabbinic decree concerning sheep and goats prioritized long-term needs by exercising restraint in the short-term. As individuals, we would do well to consider today whether there are areas of our consumption where we could exercise prioritize long-term needs , especially in our choices for using energy, water, food, and consumer products, each major contributors to today’s sustainability challenges. 
The Rabbis' understanding of this decree as linked to(settlement of the Land of Israel is striking. It underscores that settling the Land of Israel is not only about the commandment incumbent upon individual Jews, but the greater communal responsibility for settling sustainably. And it is not just about settlement of the Land now, but also sustaining it for future generations. We must live on the earth in a way that lasts for generations by maintaining its natural resource base.
Genesis 2:15 teaches: “Now the Lord God took the man, and He placed him in the Garden of Eden to work it and to guard it.” According to the Jewish mystics, the Garden of Eden is much more expansive than we think. As Sefer Habahir teaches, “Rabbi Amorai asked: Where is the Garden of Eden?  It is on earth.”
At a deeper level, these enactments and sustainable living are not just about ensuring our own survival, as important as that is. They enable us to fulfill the Divine mandate for stewardship of this planet with which G-d entrusted us. May we embrace sustainable living as an act of profound religious significance, and merit to live once again within a Garden of Eden on this planet Earth.
Rabbi Yonatan Neril founded and directs Jewish Eco Seminars (, which engages and educates the Jewish community on Israel, the environment and Jewish values.

This article was developed for, a web portal uniting the global Jewish environmental community, with support from the ROI Community of Young Jewish Innovators.