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Rabbi Shmuel Silinsky

Application of Ancient Agricultural Practices
As Seen in Traditional Jewish Texts

by Rabbi S. Silinsky
Jerusalem, Israel 2006


There is a wealth of information in traditional Jewish sources concerning agricultural crops and practices. The books of the Bible are filled with references to agriculture. The many commentaries on the Bible include Midrashim (texts in Hebrew and Aramaic, many dating back to the 1st century of the Common Era and quoting even earlier oral traditions). There are also numerous Biblical commentaries from the Middle Ages and later that give explanations of the references.

The Mishna is a compilation of Jewish Oral Tradition, put into writing in Israel around the year 200 of the Common Era. Approximately 1/6 of the Mishna is a section called "Seeds" and is dedicated to agriculture in Jewish practice. These give a unique first-hand view of agrarian life two thousand years ago. It covers wide-ranging topics from determination of different species to irrigation practice to harvest and post-harvest handling. Again, the numerous explanatory commentaries through the centuries add tremendous depth to the understanding of the topics.

The Jerusalem Talmud and, later, the Babylonian Talmud are made up of extensive discussions of topics in Jewish law, using the Mishna as a starting point. These have been studied (along with the other texts previously mentioned) continuously by Jewish scholars since their inception. The detailed commentaries on these subjects throughout the centuries give us a continuous first hand record of agricultural practice in those times and places.

Our underlying assumption is that the agricultural practices of ancient Israel gave a high yield while preserving the sustainability of the system. This is borne out by the fact that the area was inhabited continuously for many centuries, interrupted only by forced exile and destruction caused by war. Contrast this to the Maya, whose agricultural practices seem to have caused a depletion of resources with a resulting abandonment of their area.

A brief survey of relevant topics follows. This is only an overview with much more detail available. Along with sample topics are a few suggestions for potential research inspired by the topics.

Biblical Commandments

A number of commandments relating to agricultural practices were given to the Jewish people in the Bible. Although the spiritual nature of the commandments was primary, we can glean insights from them that may be applicable for agriculture in other regions of similar climate. This in turn could be adapted to suit other climates as well.


Peah refers to the corner of the field, left for the poor after harvest. It includes other gifts to the needy from agricultural fields and orchards. Pertinent to us, Peah reveals the social structure of the agricultural community. It defines the concept of a field, telling us about field size, layout, harvest techniques, and what may be considered a disruption of the field contiguity.

Kelayim (Mixed Species)

This tractate deals with the Biblical prohibitions of mixing species, whether through grafting trees, interplanting in a field or vineyard, or crossbreeding, as with a horse and donkey to produce a mule. Included are details of what determines a "species", spacing and field layout for various crops, vineyards, and other planting patterns. One purpose of this is to preserve the natural order of things. It definitely reveals much about agricultural practices.
Example: Tosephta Kelayim 3:6: Spacing of grapevines to be considered a vineyard is from 4 cubits to 8 cubits. (A cubit is approximately 1.5-2 feet, 4 cubits is 6-8 feet). Any spacing more or less is not considered a vineyard, (but rather a collection of individual vines). Also, there must be at least 2 rows, exactly aligned, minimally one row of 2 and another of 3 vines. (There is another source, which indicates a maximum distance of 12 cubits is still considered a vineyard.)

Put in the context of other practices, this spacing gives insight into what makes a successful vineyard. It could be noted that Cornell University recommendations of grapevine spacing is about 6 feet (4 cubits at the lower standard) but notes that agricultural machinery requires a wider spacing. Factors of height and sun angles for times of day are part of the considerations in the Cornell recommendation.

Although wider spacing reduces root competition, it is possible that in more arid regions a greater root competition from neighboring plants will encourage deeper rooting with attendant drought resistance. In addition, closer rows means shading of the soil by the top growth. This has many advantages, including protection of roots zone from temperature extremes and reduction of evaporation from the soil surface. I would also surmise that closer rows means a higher relative humidity among the vines. Although higher humidity and reduced air circulation makes optimal conditions for disease, this may not be much of a factor in the arid summer of a Mediterranean climate.

Shviis (Sabbatical Year)

Just as the weekly cycle consists of six days of the workweek and the Sabbath is a day of rest, so too the yearly cycle consists of six years of agricultural work and an entire year in which the land rests with no agricultural work being done. Agricultural practices are detailed and some fascinating.

Example: Mishna Shviis details that a tree field can be plowed during the sixth year as long as it is beneficial to the crop of that year and will not be construed as for the crop of the seventh year.

From this source, plowing was a common practice around fruit trees. Why? What was gained by plowing around established trees? One possibility is weed control. Any other vegetation competes for water resources - the most limiting factor in arid agriculture.

It could be that plowing has other purposes. The air in soil spaces is generally at maximum saturation with water vapor. A common occurrence of arid lands is a rapid drop in nighttime temperature. Dew point is often reached and this is a quite important water source for many desert organisms, both plant and animal. An additional phenomenon that merits investigation is a reverse vapor pressure in the soil, which may actually serve to drive water vapor downwards to cooler depths where the vapor may condense.

Note that using an ox drawn plow avoids the compaction problem caused by today's heavy machinery. In addition, plowing was done up 4 cubits from the tree (the space needed for a harvester with his basket standing outside the tree area and picking fruits). This corresponds nicely to the drip line area. By not plowing within this area, the O and A horizons of the soil are preserved. Destruction of soil structure in upper horizons to plow depth is a common occurrence today. It would be of interest to experimentally quantify differences in production as well as sustainability in plowed vs. intact soils.


Orlah refers to the first three years of a fruit tree, wherein the fruits are forbidden. Rav Shlomo Zalman Aurbach OBM has said that all forming fruits should be removed to avoid anyone using them in error. The result of this practice is that the energy and plant resources that would go to fruit formation go instead to the vegetative aspects of the vine - specifically root and shoot formation. Whereas in modern pomology the standard of success is 3rd year yield, in the ancient Jewish world there was no 3rd year crop at all!

Another major difference in ancient agricultural systems is the longevity of a planting. In today's world, a fruit orchard may be uprooted and changed periodically, depending on the current demand for a particular variety. In the ancient world, it was actually forbidden to needlessly remove a fruit tree (Deuteronomy 20:19). There are many instances where isolated trees are left in fields, even though they may interfere with ease of working with the field crop.

Property and Zoning Laws

Rashi's commentary on Numbers 35:4

The 42 (total of 48) Levite cities had a 1000 cubit wide greenbelt (approx 1/2 km) surrounding them, further encircled by a 2000 cubit wide belt of fields and orchards.

Mishna Bava Basra:

A tannery (unpleasant odor) and threshing floor (wind-born chaff waste products) could not be located upwind from a city. The airborne waste products or foul odors would negatively impact quality of life for the inhabitants. This could be the first environmental legislation in history. It also tells us where to look for these things in an archaeological excavation.

Miscellaneous Sources of Agricultural Significance

Talmud Bavli Shabbat 67

If a tree is "sick" and cannot hold its fruits one should surround it with heavy rocks and put a red dye on the trunk.

We must ask what possible use are the rocks or the red dye.

The rocks on the roots may stress the tree, which has the effect of keeping its fruit. How this works, I do not know, but it may be similar to the "old citrus grower's trick" of tightly tying a copper wire or making a shallow cut around the trunk of a citrus or avocado that does not set fruit well. Why rocks on the roots may be effective merits investigation. Perhaps it limits air exchange, changes the surface water, temperature, or even perhaps the added weight on the roots makes a difference.

The red dye on the trunk is a sign to those passing, that the tree is in trouble and to pray for it! This emphasizes the spiritual side of life in Israel, but is also suggests an intriguing possibility. There is current research on the effect of prayer on ill humans. Has anyone even thought to explore the possibility of prayer affecting other aspects of our environment?

The above are just a very few of the many sources in Jewish texts that shed light on ancient agriculture with potential great relevance for today's world.

Parallels in Ancient Old World and New World Agriculture

There are startling resemblances between Old World and New World solutions to the problems of agriculture in arid or semi-arid areas. Some of these are recognizable in form, though the question of what was their purpose remains to be explored.

An example is the Mishna Kelayim mentioned above (Oral Tradition on Mixed Species), Chapter 3 - Aruga. The problem discussed deals with planting many kinds of seed in a limited area.

One solution is "aruga", a square of 6 x 6 tephachim (hand's breadths). The border around the aruga consists of walls one handbreadth high and one handbreadth wide.

I once came across an Organic Gardening magazine article from the 1980s on the Three Sisters system of gardening. The illustration in the article was of a drawing of a Zuni garden plot made up of squares being hand irrigated. The garden was made up of squares separated by low walls and the entire totality immediately struck me as a very plausible illustration of the aruga in Mishna Kelayim. What struck me as significant is that the walls in the Zuni garden were used to contain irrigation water. The square was flooded and the water allowed to percolate down, a very effective method for growing vegetables.

The above illustration can be seen in this reference to Folk Variety (FV) seeds put out by the Center for People, Food, and Environment (CPFE) in Tucson, AZ.

I never knew the exact purpose of the aruga in the 2,000-year-old Mishna. There is tremendous discussion on the structure and layout of the aruga in ancient Israel, but only upon seeing how the Zuni used a similar technique did I realize the function of the aruga.


The many Jewish texts in the various dialects of Hebrew and Aramaic can add tremendously to our understanding of early agriculture in arid and semi-arid areas. A systematic study with an emphasis on the agricultural subjects may yield clues as to how a seemingly difficult climate and pre-industrial techniques were able to produce a wealthy and flourishing national economy. It seems clear that comparing sustainable agriculture of arid and semi-arid areas in different cultures can add tremendously to our understanding and, ultimately, to effective use of our resources.

Copyright 2006 R.S. Silinsky
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