Latest update: March 13th, 2015
(Arachin, 31a, 31b, 32a, 32b, 33b; Eruvin 59a; Yoma 12a; Bava Kama 82b; Ketubot 45b)
The second category into which land in Israel was classified for the purpose of determining the scope of reversionary rights during the era when the Jubilee laws applied was known as “batei arei chomah,” houses or other constructions in walled cities.
The reversionary rights the Torah gave to the original owners of batei arei chomah differed from those given to the original owners of sdeh achuzah, ancestral fields, in the following four significant ways.
First, whereas the original owners of sdeh achuzah were precluded by the Torah from exercising their right of mandatory redemption of the ancestral field for a period of two years from the sale, the original owners of batei arei chomah were permitted to exercise their right of mandatory redemption and buy back the property immediately following the sale.
Second, whereas the mandatory redemption rights of the original owners of sdeh achuzah could be exercised at any time two years from the date of the sale until the Jubilee year, the mandatory redemption rights of the original owners of batei arei chomah expired 365 days after the sale.
Third, whereas sdeh achuzah automatically reverted back to the original owners upon the arrival of the Jubilee year, even if the original owners did not exercise their buyback rights, batei arei chomah remained with the purchaser forever and did not revert back to the ownership of the original owners if they did not exercise their buyback rights within one year.
Fourth, whereas upon exercising buyback rights the original owners of sdeh achuzah were permitted to deduct from the buyback price the value of the crops that buyers enjoyed prior to the buyback, the original owners of batei arei chomah were not permitted to deduct any amount for the use that the buyers enjoyed prior to the buyback, but had to refund the full purchase price to the buyer.
Because of these significant differences in reversionary rights, it was important to know the definition of batei arei chomah.
Batei arei chomah are structures (of at least six to eight square feet) in towns consisting of at least three courtyards with two buildings each, with a predominantly Jewish population – provided that such towns were surrounded by a wall in the time of Joshua even though they may no longer be surrounded by a wall at the time of the sale or buyback. Batei arei chomah included not only residential houses fitting that description, but also structures used for business in such times – olive presses, bath houses, storehouses, dovecots, cisterns, vaults.
The laws of Batei arei chomah applied only to structures sold together with the land upon which they were built, but not to structures that were sold “without” land. Since, according to one Tannaic opinion, the land of Jerusalem was not apportioned to any particular tribe, but was designated as Temple property to which all tribes had equal access, land in Jerusalem – as opposed to structures – could not be privately sold and therefore the sale of structures in Jerusalem was not subject to the laws of batei arei chomah but rather to the different laws of batei chatzerim, open towns, which shall be discussed separately.
The fact that purchasers of batei arei chomah were refunded the purchase price in full upon a buyback and did not have to pay the original owners anything for the use that they enjoyed prior to the buyback, caused some concern in so far as this free use might be construed as being contrary to the laws of ribit, interest on loans, which the Torah prohibits, whether paid in cash or in kind.
If the original owner who sold his house for $1,000,000, which he received as the “purchase price” from the buyer, redeemed his house prior to one year and refunded the purchase price in full, this transaction could be construed as a loan of $1,000,000 for one year for which the house was put up as collateral, to be foreclosed upon should the loan not be repaid.
In fact, if one takes the position that prior to the expiration of twelve months there is no real sale at all, but only a conditional sale, it looks even more like a loan. There are two approaches to this concern, one of the Mishnah and one of the Braitah.
According to the Mishnah, which looks at the transaction at the commencement of the transaction, the free use, though reminiscent of interest, is not really interest at all because the free use arises from a sale and not a loan. According to the Braitah, which looks at the conclusion of the transaction, it turns out that the money in the hands of the original owner was in fact a loan, which he now has to pay back and the free use of the property by the buyer is in fact interest.
Nevertheless, according to the Braitah, it is permitted interest because the Torah permitted it in these circumstances. A way of rephrasing the issue is whether a transaction that might or might not turn out to be a loan – depending upon the election of one party to the transaction, in this case the original owner – is or is not a transaction involving ribit.
This potential ribit situation is referred to in the Talmud as tzad echad beribit. According to the Mishnah, a transaction involving tzad echad beribit does not violate the prohibition of ribit, whereas according to the Braitah, it does.
For those of us who thought the concept of escrow was a modern legal invention, the laws of batei arei chomah hold an interesting surprise.
On the last day of the year, following the sale of batei arei chomah, and in order to defeat the buyback rights of the original owners, the Mishnah tells us that buyers used to hide from the original owners. In order to put an end to this tactic, Hillel ruled that original owners unable to locate the buyers on the last day could deposit the refund money with the bet din in escrow for the buyers’ benefit, and they would then be permitted to evict the buyer from the property.
Raphael Grunfeld’s book, “Ner Eyal on Seder Moed” (distributed by Mesorah) is available at OU.org and your local Jewish bookstore. His new book, “Ner Eyal on Seder Nashim & Nezikin,” will be available shortly.
Comments to the writer are welcome at Rafegrun@aol.com.Raphael Grunfeld
About the Author: Raphael Grunfeld’s book, “Ner Eyal on Seder Moed” (distributed by Mesorah) is available at OU.org and your local Jewish bookstore. His new book, “Ner Eyal on Seder Nashim & Nezikin,” will be available shortly.
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