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Unlocking Sefer Vayikra – A Puzzling Exception

May 5, 2010

Questions and answers about the weekly parsha that will open up the text with questions and various approaches. The material is excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s new book Unlocking the Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey into the Weekly Parsha on Vayikra.

A Puzzling Exception


In a sweeping set of edicts at the beginning of Parshat Behar, the Torah regulates the sale of land within Jewish society.

1. Land should be sold only in the case of dire necessity.

2. Land that has been sold may be redeemed after two years by the original owner or by his relatives. The price of redemption is com­puted on the basis of the purchase price minus the value of the years that have passed since the sale.

3. Land that has not been redeemed automatically reverts back to the original owner with the onset of the Jubilee year.

The implications of these laws are nothing less than staggering. From a Torah perspective, land cannot be sold in perpetuity, only leased for a period of time. Properly observed, the laws regulating the sale of land ensure, in the words of Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, “the pre­vention of complete permanent poverty of some families by the side of overpowering accumulation of property in the hands of the few.”

Once again, the Torah strikes at the critical area of land owner­ship, the fault line between the haves and the have-nots throughout history. Even an individual who be­comes so destitute that he is forced to sell his family’s holdings can be assured that those holdings will be returned to him or to his heirs with the arrival of the Yovel year, if not before.

Framing the message of these majestic laws, the text proclaims: “And the land will not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is Mine; for sojourners and residents are you with Me.”

There is, however, one glaring exception to the Torah’s rules of land-lease. If an individual sells a residence house within a walled city, the regulations that apply are almost the opposite of those listed above. In such cases:

1. The original owner, or, upon his death, his heirs, may redeem his property only during the first year after the sale. Other relatives of the seller are prohibited from redeeming this property.

2. After the first year has passed, any opportunity for redemption has been lost. The residence is considered sold in perpetuity, with the sale unaffected even by the arrival of the Jubilee year.


Why is any exception made to the general rules that govern land sales in Jewish law?

In light of the overwhelmingly significant social lessons conveyed by the general laws of land redemption and the return of land in the Yovel year, shouldn’t these laws be applied to all transactions, including the sales of residential dwellings in walled cities?


Confronted with the puzzling legal distinction made in the text between city dwellings and agricultural property, the scholars offer a variety of ex­planations.


The Chizkuni offers two rationales for the distinction between city dwell­ings and rural property.

In an approach similar to that of the Ramban, this scholar first ex­plains that God is only concerned for the return of property upon which the owner’s livelihood depends. Fields and the dwellings attached to them are therefore open to an extended redemption period and, barring such redemption, must be returned to the original owner upon the commence­ment of the Yovel year.

In his second explanation, however, the Chizkuni makes a one-hundred-eighty-degree turn by suggesting that these laws may actually reflect the needs and mindset of the purchaser, rather than those of the seller. An individual who purchases a city dwelling, the Chizkuni explains, generally intends to do so in perpetuity. After all, individuals are rarely comfortable living in the homes of others. The Torah, therefore, grants the purchaser full ownership of the dwelling after the first year has passed.

By their very nature, however, agricultural properties and the dwellings attached to them are more transient in terms of habitation, as evidenced by the fact that sharecroppers and workers often live in others’ fields. The purchaser of such property acquires no personal connection to the land and consequently develops no need for continued ownership. These properties, therefore, remain open for redemption and are returned to the original owner with the arrival of the Yovel year.


A wonderfully creative, practical approach to the laws of dwellings in walled cities is offered by the nineteenth–twentieth-century Lithuanian scholar Rabbi Meir Simcha Hacohen of Dvinsk, in his classic work the Meshech Chochma. Through the eyes of this scholar, the issue before us translates into a clash between communal and personal need, with com­munal concerns emerging triumphant.

The Meshech Chochma notes that walled cities played a crucial mili­tary role in the defense of the Land of Israel, as a major line of resistance against invading armies. The laws of land redemption and return could not be applied to these population centers without severely weakening the residential stability essential to their role.

If every fifty years dwellings within walled cities returned to their original owners, the resultant population upheaval would sorely under­mine each city’s infrastructure. Vast numbers of newcomers would arrive, unfamiliar with the ways of the area; neighbors would be strangers to each other; personal relationships, years in the making, would suddenly be de­stroyed; the community’s ability to act together in any concerted fashion would be sorely compromised.

Such a phenomenon would place the entire country in grave danger.

Therefore, although the laws of redemption and return should really apply to all property, including residences in walled cities, the Torah creates an exception. The personal rights of the owners are overruled by commu­nal need; and the overarching social laws of land redemption and return are set aside in favor of national security.

Points to Ponder

At face value, the Meshech Chochma’s observations concerning the military role of walled cities hardly seem relevant to our lives. Modes of warfare have obviously changed since the time of the Torah. Even in Israel where, unfortunately, our readiness for conflict must be constant, we have more effective weapons at our disposal than walled population centers.

And yet, with a little imagination, I believe that we can hear the Meshech Chochma speaking directly to us. After all, our Jewish commu­nities do lie on the frontlines of an ongoing struggle for continued Jewish existence in a challenging world. In Israel, issues of physical survival are clearly played out on a daily basis across the country. In the diaspora it is the battle for spiritual survival that is more keenly felt. Everywhere in the world, in equally significant yet varying ways, strong Jewish communal structure protects us against serious threats to our Jewish way of life.

Synagogues at their best fulfill the role implicit in their Hebrew title beit knesset, “house of gathering.” More than simply a house of prayer, the synagogue has become the central locus of our religious lives, providing both a safe communal harbor and an environment encouraging spiritual growth. Within such shuls, participants develop into an extended fam­ily, celebrating each other’s occasions of joy, sharing each other’s sorrow. Generations gather, enabling congregants to learn life lessons from each other’s worlds and experiences. Through involvement with the beit knesset, children learn that they belong to something bigger. Within its walls, they form lifelong friendships and acquire much of their world outlook.

How lonely and isolating it must be, particularly in an increasingly tur­bulent world, for those who find themselves without the support provided by such communities. How critical these congregations are – particularly for us, a people within a people throughout the diaspora – striving to main­tain our unique faith and traditions.

Centuries ago, the cities that represented the first line of defense against the enemy had to be, according to the Meshech Chochma, finely tuned and functioning. If not, God forbid, disaster could result.

Our own synagogue communities need constant attention as well. They stand on the frontlines of the battle for our future.

Adapted from Unlocking the Torah Text – Vayikra by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin. Learn more about the book here: link.