SALT - Friday, 19 Iyar 5778 - May 4, 2018

  • Rav David Silverberg
This week's SALT shiurim are dedicated in memory of
David Moshe ben Harav Yehuda Leib Silverberg z"l,
whose yahrzeit is Thursday 18 Iyar, May 3
            After establishing the laws of yovel – the jubilee year – which include the requirement to return all agricultural lands to their original owners, the Torah in Parashat Behar proceeds to establish that this law affects pricing when lands are sold.  Since land is destined to return to the owner after yovel, one must take this eventuality into account when selling land, and charge only an amount that is appropriate for the number of years remaining until the yovel.  The Torah warns in this context, “al tonu ish et achiv” – forbidding overcharging when selling or underpaying when buying (25:14).  Chazal famously point to this verse as the source of the general prohibition of ona’a, which forbids charging or paying an unfair price when making transactions.  If a transaction was made for significantly more or less (a “shetut”) than the fair market price, then the transaction made be retroactively voided by the victimized party.
            Chazal (Bava Metzia 47b and elsewhere) establish the rule that “ein ona’a be-karka’ot,” which limits the concept of ona’a to the sale of moveable property.  Real estate, however, is not subject to the rules of ona’a.  Already the Ramban, in his commentary to Parashat Behar (25:14), noted the peculiarity in the fact that the source for this prohibition is the Torah’s discussion of the sale of agricultural fields – regarding which, according to rabbinic tradition, the prohibition of ona’a does not apply.  It seems difficult to understand how the sale of agricultural lands could be excluded from the ona’a prohibition if it is specifically in the context of such sales that the Torah introduced this prohibition.  The Ramban answered this question by distinguishing between the prohibition of ona’a and the retroactive voiding of the sale after the fact.  The rule of “ein ona’a be-karka’ot” means only that a party cannot void a sale of real estate on the grounds of ona’a as one can after the purchase of moveable property.  However, even in the case of real estate transactions, the prohibition against overcharging or underpaying applies.
            This point is also made by the Sefer Ha-chinukh (340), who proceeds to offer an explanation for the distinction between real estate and moveable property in this regard.  He writes that given the permanence of land, people are more likely to accept an unfair transaction after the fact than they would be after acquiring perishable items, whose benefit is only temporary.  Therefore, although it is certainly forbidden to overcharge for a piece of land, nevertheless, the Torah upholds the transaction after the fact, given the permanent benefit received by the buyer.
            Keli Yakar offers a slightly different explanation.  He writes that the value of anything fluctuates over time, as it is subject to an infinite array of different conditions and circumstances.  Therefore, in the case of a piece of real estate sold at an unfairly high or low price, it is all but guaranteed to happen, at one point or another, that the property will be worth the price paid.  Even though the price is unfair under current conditions, at some point in the future the conditions will be such that the price was appropriate.  Perishable objects, however, are not guaranteed to last until this happens.  In all likelihood, the transacted item will no longer be intact, or in existence, when conditions make it worth the amount paid by the buyer.  Therefore, the transaction may be voided, whereas in the case of real estate, the transaction is binding, since it will eventually be worth the price that was paid. 
            Symbolically, this approach perhaps reminds us that the true value of something can often not be fully appreciated in the present.  We all have many blessings in our lives which we might take for granted, or which we might not view as particularly valuable, but are in truth precious assets whose true worth may not become clear to us until later in life.  Keli Yakar’s insight into ona’a teaches us to take a closer look at all we are given, to recognize all our blessings, both big and seemingly small, and appreciate that even the latter are far larger than they might at first appear.