Development Versus Preservation In The Building Of Israel

by Rabbi Akiva Wolff

It would be difficult to overstate the remarkable changes that have occurred in the land of Israel over the past century. One of the most remarkable changes has been the physical transformation of the land, from a relatively desolate and barren area into one of the most densely populated and highly developed countries in the world.

The speed and scope of this development may be unparalleled in the annals of human history. But this development has not come without costs. One of the main costs has been the degradation of the natural environment, our life-support system, including heavily polluted air and water, diminished water resource, and eroded coastal areas.

Today, Israel faces a dilemma. On the one hand, to meet the needs of a growing population, Israel must continue to develop. There is a pressing need for more housing, industry and infrastructure such as roads and power plants. On the other hand, as environmental problems worsen, there is a growing need to protect the environment and preserve what remains of Israel’s natural areas. How can Israel resolve these conflicting pressures between development and preservation? Where there is a conflict between development and preservation of natural areas, how should we decide?

For guidance, there is much to learn from the concept of Yishuv Eretz Yisrael, which requires development of the land in a wise and what might today be called a ‘sustainable’fashion. Yishuv Eretz Yisrael is clearly pro-development, but the development must be properly done and balanced with other considerations such as environmental protection.

For example, one of the development versus preservation conflicts in Talmudic times involved the raising of sheep and goats. On the one hand, raising sheep and goats was a very profitable venture. The Talmud (Chullin 84b) reports that one who wants to become wealthy should involve himself in the business of raising behama daka (sheep and goats). On the other hand, the venture of raising sheep and goats was very destructive to the arid ecosystems of the land of Israel. The Mishna (Baba Kamma 7:7) prohibited raising sheep and goats in the settled parts of the land of Israel, because of the mitzvah of Yishuv Eretz Yisrael. Perhaps this prohibition can be seen as a paradigm for addressing the conflict between development and preservation-–short-term profit does not justify the expense of extensive long-term ecological damage.

Israel has quickly become one of the most crowded countries in the developed world. One of the main conflicts between development versus preservation involves the utilization of the remaining open spaces, particularly those in or bordering developed areas. We can again look at the mitzvah of Yishuv Eretz Yisrael for guidance. In ancient times, cities in Eretz Yisrael were surrounded by an undeveloped open area known as a migrash, which was itself surrounded by agricultural fields. Each city, therefore, consisted of a core developed area, for housing and light industry, surrounded by a natural open area, the migrash, which was itself surrounded by agricultural fields. The Mishna (Arachin 32) teaches that the integrity of each of these land uses had to be maintained–-they could not be converted to other uses. We see from the Mishna that the Sages were concerned with creating and maintaining a proper balance between urban-residential area for people to live and work, agricultural area–-for growing food and fiber, and open natural area–-for aesthetic and environmental purposes. All three of these combine, in proper balance, to produce appropriate and responsible settlement of the land. Even though the Biblical requirement of the migrash applied only to Levitical cities, nevertheless, the sages required it in all the cities of the land of Israel because of Yishuv Eretz Yisrael.

Israel is one of the few places in the world where forestation has actually increased over the past century. Long ago, the Jewish sages showed great concern for the planting and preservation of trees as a vital part of Yishuv Eretz Yisrael. Their concern was sufficiently great to rule in some cases that the preservation of trees contributed more to Yishuv Eretz Yisrael than even the building of houses.

The serious water problems facing Israel are also nothing new. In ancient times, the development and preservation of water sources was given high priority, sometimes at the cost of other, more profitable forms of development. There was a disagreement amongst the Sages as to whether water cisterns (for storing water for the inhabitants of an area) contribute more to Yishuv Eretz Yisrael than even trees.

A more contemporary scholar, the late Daniel Elazar wrote: In matters of planning, the first great complex of Jewish values is that encompassed by the concept of Yishuv Ha’Aretz, which has to do not only with the settlement and development of the land but also with the protection of its environmental quality in the course of that development. It includes such concepts as bal tashkhit, the prohibition of senseless destruction of the environment even in times of war. The laws of sanitation both in civilian life and in times of war, the sabbatical laws, the need to reinvigorate the earth by allowing it to lie fallow periodically, also fall within this category.

The development of the land of Israel is clearly a necessary and positive activity. Protecting the environment and the preservation of important natural areas is also a long-standing Jewish value of great importance. Therefore, all development must be carried out with great consideration to minimizing the environmental costs and preserving what remains of the natural areas in Israel.


Rabbi Akiva Wolff is a lecturer at the Jerusalem College of Technology – Machon Lev. He directs the Center for Business Ethics’ Judaism and the Environment unit, which researches Torah perspectives and solutions to environmental problems.