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Man–Environment Relations in Halakhic Sources: Three Circles
GLOBAL WARMING ACCORDING TO JEWISH LAW
ones that detract from ones’ quality of life or tranquility. Nuisance laws, therefore,
introduce the concept that quality of life is also a “protected interest,” which is
Here, we will first describe the two first circles and will then describe in brief
some principles derived from them, and which could serve as a platform for an
applicable Halakhic doctrine for the management of modern environmental hazards,
including global ones, which go beyond the responsibility of the individual or the
local public, and relate to the world at large.
3.1. THE LOCAL CIRCLE
Some examples: The Mishnah requires the distancing of hazardous materials from
the neighbor’s property: “A man should keep olive refuse, dung, salt, lime, and flint
stones at least three handbreadths from his neighbor’s wall or plaster it over.”14 The
Mishnah makes similar demands on ones’ conduct toward his upstairs neighbor:
“An oven should not be fixed in a room unless there is above it an empty space of at
least 4 cubits. If it is fixed in an upper chamber, there must be under it paved flooring
at least three handbreadths thick, or for a small stove one handbreadth.”15
And so also in the following Mishnah: “A man should not open a bakery or
a dyer’s workshop under his neighbor’s storehouse, nor a cowshed. In point of
fact the rabbis permitted [a bakery or dyer’s workshop to be opened] under wine,
but not a cowshed.”16 The Mishnah also requires the protection against noise:
“One may protest against the opening of a shop within the courtyard and claim,
‘I cannot sleep due to the noise of those entering and exiting’.17
3.2. THE PUBLIC CIRCLE
The Mishnah protects not only the individual’s property and quality of life but also
the public and its property. For reasons of protection from air pollution, the Mishnah requires the distancing of various hazards from inhabited settlements: “Animal
carcasses, graves and tanneries must be distanced 50 cubits from a town. A tannery
may be set up only to the east of a town. Rabbi Akiva says it may be set up on any
side save the west, and it must be distanced 50 cubits [from the town].”18 The Mishnah
also prohibits air pollution caused by waste, and thus prohibits threshing grain
Mishnah, Bava Batra, 2:1.
SHLOMO E. GLICKSBERG
close to town: “A permanent threshing floor may not be made within 50 cubits of
the town. One may not make a permanent threshing floor within his own domain
unless his ground extends 50 cubits in every direction, and he must distance it from
his fellow’s plants and ploughed land so that it will not cause damage.”19
A further Mishnah prohibits the planting of a tree near an inhabited area, and
even requires its uprooting once planted: “A tree may not be grown within a distance
of 25 cubits from the town, or 50 cubits if it is a carob tree or a sycamore tree.”20
The Mishnah does not explain the measures taken or the nature of the nuisance.
However, the discussion in the Babylonian Talmud on this issue quotes the Amora
(Talmudic Sage) Ullah on this, that the preservation of the town’s aesthetic beauty
is the reason for distancing the trees, so that they will not obscure the view seen from
the town, which would detract from the town’s beauty. Later, poskim concluded
from these sources that the town’s aesthetic appearance should be nurtured, and
that legal recourse could be pursued to remove any hindrance to this.21
According to the Braita22 quoted in Bava Kama Tractate, on a town with a
public standing such as Jerusalem, even stricter demands were made concerning
quality of life and the environment: “Ten special regulations were applied to
Jerusalem:… that neither beams nor balconies should be allowed to project there;
that no dunghills should be made there; that no kilns should be kept there; that
neither gardens nor orchards should be cultivated there.”23
Why is the planting of gardens and orchards in Jerusalem forbidden? The
Talmudic reason, due to “sircha,” is explained by the commentator Rashi as noxious odors, which originate either in the weeds thrown out from the gardens or in
fertilizer. Thus, the cultivating of gardens and orchards is forbidden to prevent
ecological nuisances. However, the modern-day Talmudist Jacob Nahum Epstein
used philological comparisons to explain that the Talmudic term actually referred
to a “Sandfliege” (sand fly) – a small fly found especially in gardens.24
The discussion in the Babylonian Talmud also explains the prohibition to
light kilns, which is due to the smoke rising from them.25
In the Tosefta26 to Bava Batra Tractate, a general rule was formulated by
Rabbi Nathan stating that kilns must be kept 50 cubits from any town.27
Bava Batra 2:7.
On this Halakha and its evolvement, see, S. E. Glicksberg, “The tree as a
nuisance, the evolvement of a Halacha”, Mo’ed 18 (2008), pp. 1–11.
Braita – Tanaic teachings external to the Mishnah.
Bava Kama 82:2.
J.N. Epstein, “Talmudic Lexicon”, Tarbitz 1 (1930), p. 124 (Hebrew).
Bava Kama 82b. Rashi explains that the smoke would blacken the walls, which
would disgrace the city.
Tosefta – A collection of Braitas, constituting a supplement to the Mishnah.
Tosefta, Bava Batra Tractate, 1:10.
GLOBAL WARMING ACCORDING TO JEWISH LAW
3.3. THE GLOBAL CIRCLE
As stated, in the absence of updated scientific knowledge on the capability of
mankind to cause real damage to the world and its resources,28 the Sages did not
provide precise guidelines as to what is allowed and forbidden. Nevertheless, analysis of the sources, part of which we brought here, raises several principles for
implementing a Halakhic nuisance doctrine in modern times. These principles,
defined and formulated by Halakhic scholars over centuries, referred originally
to the two circles mentioned. However, it seems that they could be implemented
also in cases of modern nuisances, even regarding those nuisances which harm not
only a neighbor or residential area, but the whole world.
4. Principles for Removing Modern Nuisances
Following are several applicable principles:
4.1. URBAN ENVIRONMENTAL PLANNING29
Serious ecological nuisances will be removed from the town up to a distance from
which they will no longer cause harm. Town planning should include the allocation of industrial areas located at a distance from town, to ensure that industrially
related activities will not take place within city bounds.30 Cottage industry can
Nachmanides (Spain, thirteenth century), in his commentary on Deuteronomy
22:6, acknowledged the possibility that man could bring about significant changes
to Creation: “This too is a commandment prohibiting the killing of an animal and
its young on the same day. Alternatively, the text prohibits the extinction of an
entire species, even if it permits slaughter of animals within a given species. One
who kills the mother and her young on the same day or captivates them when they
are free is considered as if he had eliminated an entire species.” In this statement,
Nachmanides undoubtedly was ahead of his time, since in the Middle Ages there
was no technical scientific ability to foresee how mankind’s actions could indeed
harm nature. Many suppose that the notion that human activity could affect
nature was first conceived of in the nineteenth century, with the publication of
the essay by George Perkins Marsh, “Man and Nature,” in 1864. See Botkin DB
(1990) Discordant harmonies: a new ecology for the twenty-first century. Oxford
University Press, Oxford, p. 32.
Glicksberg S (2001) The attitude of Jewish law to public nuisances. M.A Thesis, Touro
College, Jerusalem, pp. 9–52; Zichel M (ed) (1990) Ecology in Jewish sources, Bar
Ilan University, Ramat Gan (Hebrew), pp. 87–104.
Bava Batra, 2:7–9.
SHLOMO E. GLICKSBERG
take place within town, but adequate distance must be maintained from residential
homes.31 These distances will be determined by experts, who will set regulations
on this matter.
The aesthetic appearance of the town should be strictly kept,32 including
open spaces surrounding the town. Even stricter regulations will be maintained
concerning towns with a public standing like Jerusalem.
However, prevention of existing nuisances is not enough. One should also
plan the prevention of potential nuisances which could evolve in the future into
4.2. SCIENTIFIC CRITERIA IN IDENTIFYING AND LOCATING A NUISANCE
The process of identification and assessment of hazards and their damage is a
Halakhic-legal process, which can be learned from studying the various Mishnayot, the commentators on them and the decisors following them. This process
can be incorporated into the management of modern-day hazards, including some
A number of stages can determine whether the removal or prevention of a
certain nuisance is effective or not. The process is as follows34: First, the nuisance
must be identified as one that the Sages or Poskim would have acted upon to
prevent. Even when it comes to modern nuisances which are not specifically mentioned in the texts, experts (using scientific criteria) can possibly characterize
them as such.35 Activity deemed by expert opinion as hazardous will be distanced
or prohibited altogether.
A subsequent stage consists of the assessment of the severity and extent of
damage, since not all activity levels or dosages are actually hazardous. This
examination will also be made according to expert opinion.36 The next stage will
be to determine the distance to which the nuisance will be distanced, if at all, also
according to expert opinion.37
The definition of aesthetics will change according to time and place. See, Glicksberg, Moed, pp. 1–11.
Bava Batra 17b; Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Neighbors, Chapter 9,
For detailed discussion, See, Glicksberg, Ph.D. Dissertation, pp. 222–246. (n. 11).
Thus, for e.g., in Responsa Tziz Eliezer, 15:39, which prohibits cigarette smoking,
following his review of scientific findings, from which he learned that cigarette
smoking indeed was a health hazard.
Responsa Ribash (Rabbi Isaac bar Sheshet Barfat), 196; Responsa Tashbetz
(Shimon Ben Tsemah Duran), 4:57.
The Rama (Rabbi Moshe Isserles), Choshen Mishpat 155:20.