Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Air Pollution

By: Rabbi Ari Enkin

The issue of air pollution, as we struggle with it today, is not directly discussed in the Talmud. There are, however, a number of Talmudic precedents and parallels which teach us that we are to show consideration for property, environment, and quality of life. These principles are especially applicable with regards to unjustifiable air pollution, especially if it affects others. Below are some examples.

In a discussion regarding the operation of furnaces, the Talmud rules that anyone who wants to set up a large furnace must do so at least 50 amot away from the city.[1] Indeed, there was an ancient enactment specifically prohibiting the use of furnaces in Jerusalem due to the effects of the smoke and other pollution it created.[2]

One is also not permitted to put one's garbage on public property and one who does so deserves to be fined.[3] So too, one is obligated to ensure that any activity or project which causes pollution or even leaves an offensive odor is distant enough from all others so that they are not affected by it.[4] It is interesting to note that in the event that there is a factory or other industry causing pollution but large numbers of city residents are dependant on the factory for their livelihood, the factory cannot be forced to close. An alternative solution or compromise, however, must be found.[5]

There is no statute of limitations with regards to air pollution, and neighbors can protest a person's polluting activities even years after they have been in operation.[6] An example of such an instance is the documented case of an individual who came to Rabbi Avraham, the son of the Rambam, and complained about a neighbor who was causing him great distress due to the clothes-dying business he was running. The fire from the dying furnace was producing excessive amounts of smoke which constantly found its was into the plaintiff's property. He claimed that the smoke was "ruining his life" and that he was also unable to hang his clothes outside as the smoke would ruin them. The defendant argued that he had been running the dying business for over fifteen years before the plaintiff had moved in, and therefore by virtue of seniority he should be permitted to continue his work unhindered. Rabbi Avraham decided in favor of the plaintiff and ruled that the defendant must cease his dying practice due to the rule that there is no statute of limitations with regards to damages.[7]

The issue of air pollution as well as all other forms of damage can be best summarized in the words of the Sefer Hachinuch who writes: "It is the way of the pious and those of good deeds that they have peace and rejoice in that which benefits people…and they never destroy even one grain of mustard in the world and they are upset by any destruction that they see. If they can save something, they will save anything from destruction in any way they can."[8]


[1] Tosefta, Bava Batra 1:10; Bava Kama 82b; C.M. 155:23
[2] Bava Kama 82b; cf. Bava Batra 23a
[3] CM 414:1
[4] CM 155:34
[5] Maharshach 2:98. Of related interest: The sefer Shem Hagedolim (Chida) quotes Rabbi Yaakov Alfandari as saying: "Mahari ibn Lev, Maharashdam, and Maharshach are to be considered like Rif, Rambam and Rosh.
[6] Bava Batra 23a
[7] Teshuvot Rabbeinu Avraham ben Harambam 101
[8] Sefer Hachinuch 529

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