33-5767: Mitzvah 67

Talmidav Shel Aharon
33-5767: Mitzvah 67
July 30, 2007

Mitzvah 67 – It is a positive commandment to render judgement on matters of buying and selling.
Hafetz Hayim: By the rule that the Torah ordained about it. This is to say that there are situations where a transaction between seller and buyer remains valid, and situations where it has no validity; and an obligation lies upon us to judge between them according to the instruction of the Torah. A specific commandment is given about this in a specific portion [of Scripture]: “and if you sell something to your fellow or buy from your fellow’s hand, etc. (Lev. 25:14) – because it [trade] is a constant thing among human beings, without which it is impossible for people to live even one day. Land can be acquired as one’s possession through money, a document, or demonstration of ownership; and moveable goods or a domestic animal by drawing {it to oneself] and all the more certainly by lifting it, and so forth. It applies everywhere and in every time.

This one surprised me for a couple of reasons. It is the first we have encountered that does not have a “proof text” from the Bible and the text that it does quote only makes the point of this Mitzvah more confused. Is this a Mitzvah only for judges, or for appraisers or does it apply to everyone, (note the conclusion does not include people).
Let me start with the quote from Leviticus 25:14. I need to give you the rest of the quote because, for some reason, the Hafetz Hayim does not quote the entire verse let alone the section in which it sits. Let me quote the section:
When you sell property to your neighbor, or buy any from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another. In buying from your neighbor, you shall deduct only for the number of years since the jubilee; and in selling to you, he shall charge you only for the remaining crop years; the more years, the higher the price; for what he is selling you is a number of harvests. Do no wrong one another, but fear your G-d; for I am the Lord your G-d.”
This is from Parshat Behar and speaks of the Jubilee year when land returned to its original owner. In a technical sense, the land was never sold, but leased for the number of years until it had to be returned. We see, in this case, there has to be a determination as to how many years are left until the land must be returned. Since we are talking about crop years, with the assumption that farming is the purpose of buying (leasing) the land, the number of years will depend on which crop is being planted and what time of year the sale takes place. This would mean that the Hafetz Hayim would be referring to land and the jubilee year only, and clearly he is not.
Perhaps since he is talking about buying and selling, he expands the mitzvah to include moveable property as well as cattle. The laws concerning buying and selling are very long and complicated and I have only a modest understanding of them. Part of the reason for this is because, under Jewish Law, when there is a conflict between Jewish law and civil law, in the case of monetary laws, we follow the law of the land and not Jewish law.
It seems more likely that the Hafetz Hayim is referring to all the laws of transactions here. The mitzvah is to make sure that all transactions are performed properly. In the case of land, to have a valid transaction you have to hand money for the land over to the seller in front of two or more witnesses, or you can draw up a contract, and by taking possession of the contract in front of witnesses, or a demonstration of ownership, that means putting up a fence, hoeing, locking the premises or putting down a mattress to sleep or any other act that would show that this person is the owner. (I note here that since a Ketubah, a marriage contract, transfers ownership of part of the grooms land to the wife in the event that he should predecease her, that the rules of transaction by contract, that is the need for witnesses and the placing of the Ketubah in her hands, is necessary and therefore a part of the wedding ceremony)
In the case of moveable property or animals, the actual object has to moved into the domain of the buyer. It can be carried there, or, in the case of animals, “pulled” there. If it is not practical to move the object, the buyer, lifting it from its place, can acquire it. There are other technical ways to acquire objects, such as using a handkerchief, or in some cases, the transfer of money. What I think the Mitzvah here is to be one of the witnesses to the transaction and therefore enable business to go on as usual. Without witnesses, business would grind to a halt and everyone would suffer.
This could explain why the Mitzvah is so unusual. While we are “commanded” to do this, it could involve a great deal of inconvenience. Rabbis would want to insure that commerce goes on but the requirement part of this seems to be very tenuous.
I invite any of my readers who have a deeper understanding of the laws of acquisition in Judaism to attach their comments if it would help clarify this Mitzvah.

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