Each week we discuss one familiar halakhic practice and try to show its beauty and meaning. The columns are based on Rabbi Meir's Meaning in Mitzvot on Kitzur Shulchan Arukh
Laws of Acquisitions (part 2) Kinyan Devarim
Last week we explained that the specific laws for acquiring an object have a deeper spiritual message, as elaborated by Rav Natan of Breslav in the section of Likutei Halakhot on these laws.
We mentioned that merely agreeing to transfer ownership of an object does not effect an acquisition (SA CM 189). The original owner remains owner, though he is considered untrustworthy if he reneges on a commitment to sell barring some kind of duress (CM 204). Rather, an acquisition of movable goods is effected only through a specific act of kinyan. This week we will present Rav Natan’s explanation of why mere verbal agreement is not enough.
The main insight of Rav Natan is that commerce, no less than production or agriculture, has a critical role in G^d’s service. Just as production elevates a purely natural object into one suitable for human use, so commerce helps bring the completed object to the person who is most able to help this object realize its unique providential role.
Rav Natan constantly emphasizes that a critical role in this process is fair dealing. Only when a person is honest and keeps his word, will the process of trade through human interaction be successful in effecting continuous elevation. This also has a clear ethical expression: if people are dishonest in their business relations, then they will not be aware of the unique properties and value of different goods; thus, these will not find their ordained use. That is why a commitment to buy or sell should be reverently honored; honesty is the basis of the entire project.
Even so, the transfer is not completed by
a mere verbal commitment. Rav Natan explains this based on one a principle
of his teacher, Rav Nachman of Breslav.
This same process applies when an object attains a measure of elevation through commerce. The first stage in this process is the clarification, or berur, whereby the appropriate owner of the object is determined; this takes place through the preliminary verbal agreement. This begins the object’s “journey” to a new level, but at first it attains only the outerness of this level. If this stage were considered final, there is a danger that we would never penetrate the innerness of the new level.
My understanding of this is that it reflects the inadequacy of agreement without commitment. In human relations a truly productive alliance between people requires commitment, which is cemented by a formal act. Even at the practical level, having a couple merely agreeing to live together will never create the same inner bond attained by a sanctioned marriage, kiddushin. A similar process applies at the material level. Using our material possessions in an elevated way requires a committed psychic connection, which can’t be created by a mere agreement. It is necessary for the acquirer to carry out a more concrete act of acquisition.
Therefore, while it is dishonorable for the seller to renege on the agreement, it is possible to do so since the buyer has not yet established the committed connection to the object that will certainly enable him to use it in G^d’s service in a positive way. In Chassidic terms, this means that the object reverts to the innerness of the lower level, which is still preferable to the mere “outerness” of the higher level of the objects use.
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