For Sale by Jerry Karp


This week’s Parsha discusses the laws of buying and selling land in Eretz Yisrael.  One of the most interesting laws in the Parsha is that in the Yovel year, all land must return to its original owner.  The Torah mandates that land is to be sold for a fixed number of years and the price is to be set based on the number of years remaining in the 50-year cycle.  This seems to be quite peculiar.  Why is the Torah insistent that land cannot be sold on a permanent basis?

Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch explains that the Torah is attempting to create an economic equality between all of Bnei Yisrael.  Without the Yovel year, a few members of the upper class could own large regions of land while many destitute people would own nothing.  Therefore, the purpose of the Yovel year is to ensure that an economic balance is always kept among Bnei Yisrael. 

Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook has a very different approach to the purpose of Yovel.  He explains that Yovel is meant to renew the holiness of Bnei Yisrael.  To effect this, however, all land must return to its original owner.  The holiness of the Yovel is brought about by the freedom that comes with economic balance.  When the original owner of the land sells his inheritance, he is giving up his freedom and, so to speak, becoming a “slave.”  This is opposed to the idea in Chazal’s famous statement where Hashem says that Bnei Yisrael are “Avadai Hem, Vilo Avadim La’avadim,” “My slaves, and not the slaves of slaves.” When the Yovel comes, all those who have “become slaves” and sold their land are forgiven and their land is returned.  It is also for this reason that the Yovel begins on Yom Kippur as Yovel is to have an atmosphere of forgiveness.

One question still remains.  A house in a city that has had a wall since the time of Yehoshua bin Nun can only be redeemed for one year, and after that time, it belongs permanently to the purchaser.  Why is a house in a walled city made an exception?  The Meshech Chachmah explains that walled cities were meant for defense, and if all the original owners were to return after the Yovel, they would not be united, since they had not lived together for years.  Therefore, the city would not be able to defend itself.  The Ramban, however, gives an answer that blends nicely with R’ Hirsch’s explanation of Yovel.  He says that a person will only sell his house if he has become extremely impoverished.  The person who sells the house will be extremely embarrassed to be forced to sell his house merely in order to live.  Therefore, the Torah sets a limit on the time that the seller has to buy back the house.  This is meant to encourage him to buy back the house and regain his pride.  Ultimately, the point of selling land is to help one's financial situation, but the Torah is mandating that even this should not take an emotional toll on a person.  The Torah considers a person’s self‑worth to be more important than a person’s financial worth.

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