One who sells his or her land to another is obligated to give his neighbor who has an adjoining field precedence in any sale… This is in accordance with the principle stated in Torah, “you shall do that which is right and good.” [Deuteronomy 6:18] Our Sages said that... it is right and good that the adjoining landowner should have a prior right of purchase over the one whose fields are far away. —Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Neighbors 12:5
Better a neighbor who is near than a brother who is far away. —Proverbs 27:10
Topics of Jewish practice as found within the Torah, Talmud and later writings extend far beyond the ethical and the ritual. In providing a basis for a community, the Torah also addresses areas of criminal and civil law. These regulations are greatly extended by the rabbis in the Talmud, and several tractates are concerned with laws we would most often associate with municipal, state and federal codes.
As contemporary Jews who live in dual civilizations, these matters of criminal and civil law are handled by civil authorities and the governments under which we live. We don't naturally look to our sacred texts as an authority on these matters. Even Jewish law itself demurs to civil authorities embodied in the principle of, dina demalchuta dina (the law of the land is the law), recognizes this.
Though rabbinic texts may not have authority in these areas, by investigating the spirit of these laws we can learn important lessons. We can uncover the underlying principles of these statutes, then seek to apply them in areas in which we do have authority and take action.
One such field of jurisprudence covered by Jewish law that is currently administered by civil code is property law. We cede to banks and civil courts—rather than batei din (Jewish courts)—in the buying and selling of land and real estate. However, some of the principles addressed with the corpus of Jewish Law can be important in our understanding of approaches to sustainability.
One such principle is that of bar metzra—the “law of the right of first refusal.” In short, if you are selling property, your adjoining neighbor has the right of first refusal in buying the land. You must offer to sell it to him first, and if he does not wish to purchase it, then it can go on the open market. This principle, codified in Maimonides code above, is found in the Talmud, Tractate Baba Metzia 108a-b.
The principle underlying this is that for an agricultural community, it is easier for a person to farm adjoining fields than disjointed fields. For many of us who are not farmers by vocation, this reasoning is irrelevant. Yet, even without farms we can see how this is a solid principle—one may want to buy an adjoining lot to have the option to extend one’s own property and yard, perhaps, or buy an adjoining condo to break through a wall and expand.
But to go even deeper, this principle of bar metzra teaches that continuity is better than disjointedness, proximity is better than remoteness, local is better than distance. In the context of sustainability, we can apply this principle to our own buying and selling by doing so in a way that focuses locally, on the community that immediately surrounds us. In making purchasing decisions, to try to buy and sell to those around us first, rather than those far off. The text from Proverbs provides biblical support and makes a compelling statement towards focusing locally on purchasing.
Buying local has many applications, and adds a deeper dimension to other principles of sustainability:
Buying locally allows us to become less alienated from the means of production, and to develop relationships with those who produce our food.
To promote buying locally, Temple Beth Hatfiloh is promoting the purchasing of specifically locally grown organic produce through sponsorship of a CSA. CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture, in which participants support local farmers by buying “shares” of the farm’s yield. For a one-time fee ($300-$500, depending on the size of the share), participants received a weekly delivery of in-season, freshly grown and harvested flowers and vegetables. As a group, members of the synagogue will have their shares delivered to the Temple. Educational programs at the farm, developed by our Youth Education Director, Ariel Zaslav (who developed the project), are being planned for participants. The Temple is also purchasing a share to donate to the local food bank.
Our own CSA supports even more aspects of tzedakah (righteous acts) because of the farm with which we are partnering. Garden Raised Bounty (GRuB) is a local organic farm that also promotes community gardening, builds gardens for low-income families, and provides jobs and leadership development for community youth. TBH has raised funds for GRuB in the past, and our religious school youth volunteered there as part of our annual Mitzvah Day.
The principle of bar metzra is drawn from the quote from Deuteronomy above—giving your neighbors priority when you sell your land is “right and good,” that is, a good thing to do even if not legally required. Buying local is a “right and good,” thing to do as it adds to the deepening and sustainability of our home communities.
Questions for Though and Discussion: