We don’t often turn to the Torah for a lesson in economics, but this week’s portion, Parashat Behar, is the basis for a number of teachings related to the basic economic issues of supply and demand, and the special conditions that apply to the sale of real estate. The portion begins with the laws of the sabbatical and Jubilee years and a reminder that God is the ultimate landlord. Over the years some families will become richer and acquire the land of their poorer neighbors, others will become poorer, perhaps even become forced to sell themselves into servitude to pay off their debts, but that situation cannot be allowed to endure and to create a permanent underclass. The Jubilee year and the requirement that everyone get to return to “start” every half century gave poor families a second chance. The portion also includes a somewhat technical section about land prices in relationship to the Jubilee year, as well as reminders of our responsibility to the poor whether they are our relatives or not.
While some halachic scholars, like Rambam, have held that the laws of onaah (economic oppression or exploitation) don’t apply to real estate, others disagree. Rabbeinu Tam holds that even in real estate, if the price increase was extreme enough the laws of onaah, which forbid oppression through excessively high prices, would void the sale. Ramban goes even further in insisting that a person who overcharges intentionally when selling real estate transgresses a Toraitic prohibition. For that reason, caution is urged in not selling real estate for a price that is beyond the recognized price range (Rabbi Tzvi Spitz, Cases in Monetary Halachah, Mesorah Publications, 2001, pages 338-339).
From Pre-Crusader days and through the end of the 19th century, Jews were confined in ghettos or restricted to living in certain areas in much of the world. This was the case in Czarist Russia where Jews were required to live in the Pale of Settlement, as well as in the Muslim world, where Jews were quite frequently restricted to their Jewish Mellah. In these situations the supply of housing was limited, and as the population grew as a result of both natural increase and the influx of refugees from nearby expulsions, the pressure on rents increased greatly. As a result tenant protection laws came into being in communities as disparate as Poland, Amsterdam and Salonicka, over periods of hundreds of years. (Meir Tamari, With All Your Possessions, Free Press, 1987, pages 111-112)
The general principle of hasagat g’vul, moving the boundary market, of not infringing on something that customarily belongs to someone else, was used in Padua in 1580 to impose excommunication on anyone who tried to rent a house which had already been rented. In addition, if there was an eviction no one could rent that apartment for three years. In Poznan there were laws against the rich hoarding empty housing with the intent of keeping pressure on rents. (Leo Jung, Business Ethics in Jewish Law, Hebrew Publishing Company, 1987, by Leo Jung, page s164-166) Further, the concern for profit margins on “commodities necessary for human life” was applied to housing as well (Aaron Levine, Economics and Jewish Law, Ktav Publishing House, 1987, page 136). Finally Rabbi Falk of Poland (1680-1756) used the Levitical verse, “let your brother live with you,” (Leviticus 26:36) as the basis for rent control on subsistence housing.
Living as I do in Santa Clara County, in Northern California, where the local paper estimates that rents have risen an average of 44 percent since 2010, these ancient laws are of more than theoretical concern. They provide an important reminder that we are not just the victims of market forces, but can also be their masters.
About the Author: Rabbi Melanie Aron serves Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos, California.