Context & Questions: A Puzzling Exception

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05 May 2010


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.


This new feature presents questions on the weekly parsha excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s new book, Unlocking the Torah Text on Vayikra.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.