Simon Jackson
Legal Advisor to Torah Mitzion


“Hashem spoke to Moshe… Command the Children of Israel that they shall give to the Levites…cities for dwelling and open space for the cities all around them… The cities shall be theirs to dwell in, and their open space shall be for their animals, for their wealth and for all their beasts…” (Bamidbar 35:1-3).

The Torah discusses the concept of green belts. This was a law for the Levitical Cities which were cities of refuge for those who had murdered accidentally. These cities were designed to look beautiful. Two thousand cubits were allocated in all directions around each city, of which the inner thousand was to remain undeveloped, while the outer thousand (two thousand according to Rambam in Hilchot Shemitta Ve’Yovel 13:2) was for fields and vineyards. At first there were only 48 cities but later there were many tens, if not hundreds more of these cities with green spaces around them.

The Rambam writes how: “Although the tribe of Levi lacked a portion in the Land, Bnei Yisrael were nonetheless commanded to provide them with cities for dwelling and open land… The Levitical Cities may not be changed into open spaces, and the open spaces may not be changed into cities; nor may an open space be changed into a field, or a field into an open space; and the same applies to the other cities in Israel” (Hilchot Shemitta Ve’Yovel 13:1-2, 4-5).

The land around the city was designated as “open land.” Rashi (Sotah 27b) explains this term to mean: “a space, clear of seeds and houses and trees, to beautify the city, to give it air.” In other words, the thousand amot of open space could not be built on or cultivated, but were to be left open, free of all obstruction, for the sake of beauty. How does the lack of trees contribute to beauty? One suggestion is that the bad smells caused by the fertilization of fields are thereby distanced; moreover, nuisances such as insects (caused when, due to the cramped living quarters in those days, the shade from the trees actually prevented the penetration of the purifying rays of the sun) are thus pre-empted .

Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 343) explains the choice of the Levitical Cities as the paradigm for the green belt model:

“Because the Torah commanded that the other tribes should give known cities to the tribe of Levi… and it also commanded that those cities should have vacant land of 1,000 amot round about, to serve as an open space for recreation and beauty to the city, and two thousand amot around that for the purpose of fields and vineyards and these too are part of beautifying the city and its needs…

The root of the Mitzvah is as follows: Because the Levitical Cities were designated for the needs of all the other tribes [all of Israel could learn from the example of the Levites], being the tribe which was chosen for Hashem’s service… and because the fountain of wisdom rested therein… all Israel thus had constant dealings with them… and it therefore follows that these cities, in which everyone was equal and which everyone looked up to, should be the epitome of beauty and delight, and the praise of the entire Jewish people. Therefore, the Torah commands that they may not be changed from their designated purpose, because the master of all wisdom ordained them and structured them and limited their boundaries, and He saw that this was indeed good, and therefore any other arrangement detracts from this perfection.”

Urban Sprawl

Since this is such a logical law about maintaining green space, it is no wonder that most cities have much green space within them, either in the form of parks or even creating green belts around the cities as in the case of Portland, Oregon. The city of Portland has defined its city limits in an effort to maintain a high standard of living within the city and in the suburbs. This will, in the future, lead to little if any degradation of the downtown inner-core as often happens with “urban sprawl” (a slang term used to describe the expansion of urban areas (cities) across the landscape in an unplanned and often wasteful manner, and even the conversion of forested areas and agriculture areas to urban areas).

We cited the Halacha above that the inhabitants of a city may not turn fields that are on the outskirts of the city into a migrash (clearing), nor may they turn a city’s migrash into fields; nor a migrash into a city, and nor a city into a migrash (Mishnah Arachin 9:8). The rationale for not converting any of these areas from its original use to a different function is explained by Rashi (Arachin 33b): The clearing immediately outside a city must be maintained as such in order to preserve the aesthetic quality of the city and it cannot therefore be rezoned for agricultural use (building houses in a clearing would also impair the beauty of the city because every city needs open spaces for beauty); the fields too must be maintained to ensure that the national food supply is not threatened; while to convert a city into a clearing would also be forbidden, because it would destroy some of the inhabited area of the city.

Indeed, according to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (commentary to Vayikra 25:34), these laws preserve the balance between urban and rural development. Torah’s ideal of leaving a greenbelt band around a city encourages the creation of small urban units and a close knit society with a high concern for the individual and the city’s surroundings: “It places an obstacle to the growth of large cities at the expense of the surrounding country. Not even the open spaces of the city may be used as building sites. If the population of a city grows too dense, new cities must be founded on sites which have not been used for agricultural purposes, such as, for example, Joshua (17:15-18) who recommends to the sons of Joseph to found new cities in the clearings of the mountain forests.”

It has been observed throughout history that large cities promote estrangement. This is reflected in the Halacha (Mishnah Ketubot 13:10) that a husband cannot force his wife to move to a large city, as it is difficult to live in a large city (Ketubot 110b), which Rashi attributes to the fact that “so many people live there, its houses are crammed together, and there is no fresh air, whereas in villages there are gardens and orchards close to the homes, and the air is clean!”

From Cities to Mankind – “Human Sprawl” 

An individual’s acquisition of material wealth can be compared to the idea of urban sprawl, viz. the appropriation of land for a given city, either in the form of expansion or appropriating resources from other parts of the world. Just as a city’s “ecological footprint” expands as its construction increases, so too a human being’s ecological footprint increases in proportion to his consumption and increased accumulation of material goods. Just as a city’s inner core, where the city was first settled, may become neglected, so too an individual’s inner-self, his spirituality, may become susceptible to neglect. Herein lies the challenge of elevating the material to a spiritual level. By constantly refining ourselves and remembering that the purpose of the material possession we acquire is to use them for spiritual goals, we can ensure that society will not abuse these gifts.