Simon Jackson
Legal Advisor to Torah Mitzion


Chazal took pains to enact regulations to safeguard the cleanliness of the public domain. Before the invention of sewer systems, sewage and other waste was stored in septic pits or channeled through pipes away from one’s property. Such waste had to be disposed of, and the Chachamim therefore allowed householders to periodically clear out their pits and pipes. However, such permission was only granted “during the rainy season” (Bava Kamma 6a), when the unpaved roads are muddy in any case. By contrast, in the summer season, householders were not permitted to soil the dry and clean thoroughfare with their waste (even if the waste materials were not injurious in nature, but merely sullied the thoroughfare).


Chazal’s Regulation Against Industrial Pollution

The Mishnah (Bava Batra 2:10 and 25a) further determines that certain enterprises must be kept at a distance from a town due to their foul odors: “”One must keep a distance [of 50 amot = 4-5 metres] between a flax pool and vegetables.” Flax stems first had to be soaked for several days to break down their tissue. The substances absorbed by the water during this process are toxic to growing plants. One must therefore distance these pools from the areas in which a neighbour grows vegetables.


Waste Materials in Jerusalem

The Gemara (Bava Kamma 82b) relates that “ten things were said about Jerusalem.” These include: “we do not make garbage dumps in Jerusalem because of the creeping creatures (that naturally thrive there)… we do not make kilns in the city because of the smoke (which would blacken the city wall and mar the beauty of Jerusalem).”

A further regulation is that “we do not create gardens and orchards in the city.” The rationale for this is that gardens and orchards would bring in their wake piles of decayed matter created by the need to uproot and discard the dead plants and weeds (which in turn would mar the beauty of the city), or alternatively because to maintain a garden also involves fertilizing it (which in turn would create a stench in the city – see Rashi on the word “sirachon”). Only ‘the Rose Garden’ could be maintained!

Chazal clearly wished to preserve the cleanliness of Jerusalem and the health of its inhabitants, as well as the pleasing appearance and orderly life of the city.



The Mishnah (Yoma 5:6) enlightens us that the remnants of the blood in the Mikdash “were sold to gardeners as fertilizer” and that: “from the worn-out trousers of the Cohanim and their belts they would tear and make wicks and would kindle them – and there was not a courtyard in Jerusalem that was not illuminated by the light of the Simchat Beit Hashoeiva celebration” (Sukka 5:3).



We cited earlier the final part of the Mishnah (Bava Batra 2:10) on the subject of a person’s responsibility to distance from others enterprises which are liable to be injurious. The first part of this Mishnah stipulates that “one must distance animal carcasses, graves, and a tannery – 50 amot from the town [so as not to disturb the town’s residents with their foul odor – Rashi].”

Moreover, despite the principle of chazakah, which would normally permit an otherwise harmful activity which went unchallenged for a period of three years, one never loses one’s right to protest against extremely objectionable sources of damage – such as smoke from a kiln which emits heavy clouds of smoke that drift over a neighbor’s property and an outhouse common in Talmudic times in which the waste remains above ground (see Rashi and Tosafot on the words kutra and beit hakisei, Bava Batra 23a).

The Rambam in his ‘Guide to the Perplexed’ (III:45) explains the (likely) reason for offering ketoret (incense) in the Temple:

Since in the holiest of places numerous animals are slaughtered every day for sacrifices, the flesh cut in pieces and the entrails and the legs burnt and washed, the smell of the place would undoubtedly have been like the smell of slaughter-houses, if nothing had been done to counteract it. They were therefore commanded to burn incense twice daily, in the morning and in the evening, in order to give the place and the garments of those who officiated there a pleasant odor. There is a well known saying of the Rabbis: “In Jericho they could smell the incense [being burnt in the Temple” (Tamid 3:8). This provision likewise tended to support the dignity of the Temple. If there had not been a good smell, let alone if there had been a stench, it would have produced in the minds of the people the reverse of respect; for our heart generally fills elevated in the presence of good odor and is attracted by it, but it abhors and avoids bad smells…

The words of Prof. Nahum Rakover (Eichut Haseviva – Ideological and Legal Aspects of Jewish Sources, Jewish Legal Heritage Society, 1993 [Hebrew], pp. 109-110) are extremely illuminating in this regard:

“In our own time, the number of threats to the environment has increased greatly as a result of the growth of large urban centers and the development of industry. Smoke, industrial waste, untreated sewage, dumping sites in close proximity to residential areas, damage to the ozone layer, and various other ecological evils represent a real danger not only to the environment and the quality of life, but to life itself.

Today, the danger to the environment is many times greater than at any other time in history. Thus the increasing importance of the Jewish values and the approaches contained in Jewish legal sources. If the proper course is followed, man will not forfeit his opportunity to live a life of comfort in his environment, nor will the environment be uncomfortable with man.”


Question for Further Thought: The great 13th century Ashkenazi Posek, Rabbeinu Asher ben Yechiel (the Rosh), was once asked a question concerning Reuven “who dug a hole in his yard for rainwater to collect, and now a large amount of water has accumulated, which in turn is flowing through the wall of Shimon’s cellar, and is also polluting Shimon’s yard on account of the smell of the water.”

To what extent, if at all, does Reuven need to refrain from digging in his own courtyard? After all, as we saw in the Mishnah in Bava Batra 2:10, the Chachamim only determined that certain enterprises must be kept at a distance of 50 amot [4-5 metres] from a town due to their foul odors!


Next Column: “Atmospheric Pollution and Odor Damage” Continued