Beit Midrash

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“A Man Should Not Wrong His Brother”


Rabbi Yossef Carmel

Our parasha begins with the commandment of the Shemitta (Sabbatical) year and the laws of returning fields to their owners during Yovel (Jubilee). In the middle of the discussion on Yovel, the Torah warns: "When you sell a sale to your counterpart or buy from your counterpart, a man should not wrong (al tonu) his brother. According to the number of years after Yovel he shall buy ... and a man should not wrong his counterpart" (Vayikra 25: 14-17).
Many commentators have tried to explain why the prohibition on ona’ah (mispricing) is found in this context. Rashi explains simply. Since the sale of the field is valid only until Yovel, it is important that the "buyer" realize how many years he will have it. The repetition of "al tonu" warns against offensive speech. Ibn Ezra explains similarly but says that the repetition includes the buyer and seller in the prohibition.
The Ramban raises a fundamental problem with Rashi’s approach. If the mispricing refers to the sale of land, it contradicts a rule that the laws of ona’ah do not apply to land (Bava Metzia 56a). Therefore, the Ramban explains that the first pasuk deals with ona’ah on movable objects. The Torah goes on to warn about the impact of Yovel on land sale and then presents the prohibition of wronging people with speech. He presents another possibility. While the void of the sale or return of money due to ona’ah does not apply to land, it is still forbidden to misprice. A final explanation distinguishes between different types of ona’ah. If it is a matter of appraising value, there is no ona’ah. When there is a factual mistake, such as measurement or calculating the number of years, there is ona’ah.
The Kli Yakar explains why real estate is special in regard to ona’ah. The price value of most objects fluctuates over time. Therefore, while land may be mispriced now, it will likely be correct in the future, and therefore the laws of ona’ah do not apply. However, movable objects are likely not to last long into the future, and the Torah is more concerned about the price at the time of the sale.
With the necessary humility in the face of the aforementioned commentators, let us suggest another explanation of the connection between topics. Shemitta and Yovel limit one’s ownership of his property. Every seven years, a Jew’s actions declare that the land is Hashem’s, and thus all that grows is ownerless. Every fifty years, he sees that his land acquisition was never permanent, and the land returns to its previous owners. One can think, based on all of this, that if there is no complete ownership, there is no ona’ah either. What type of commerce is there, after all, if Hashem owns everything? Therefore, the Torah tells us that, whatever level of ownership we have, laws of proper commerce apply.
Attempts of communism to eliminate private ownership failed. However, a capitalism that does not include a realization that everything is Hashem’s and that He expects us to protect the poor from the powerful will not succeed either. May we merit that our Land be one that engenders the internalization of these values.
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