Talmud Tips

For the week ending 19 November 2016 / 18 Heshvan 5777

Bava Metzia 51 - 57

by Rabbi Moshe Newman
The Color of Heaven Artscroll

“The laws of ‘ona’ah’ (unfair pricing in a sale) do not apply to a sale of land.” — Mishna 56a

The Torah states: And when you make a sale to your fellow Jew or make a purchase from the hand of your fellow Jew, you shall not wrong (“al tonu”) one another. (Vayikra 25:14)

This verse teaches that there is a prohibition against taking advantage of either a buyer or seller when conducting a business transaction. The words “al tonu”,which are translated here as “do not wrong”,more literally mean “do not oppress” or “do not take advantage of”. This is a Torah prohibition against what is known as “price-gouging”.

However, our mishna limits this prohibition to the sale of a movable object, but that it does not apply to the sale of land. The gemara explains that this distinction is seen in the word “m’yad” — “from the hand” — which implies that only objects that are “acquired from hand to hand” (movables) are included in this prohibition. Stationary land, on the other hand, is not part of the prohibition, as taught in the mishna.

Having said this, Rav Nachman states in our gemara that whenever there is ona’ah involving land, although there is no Torah prohibition, the sale is nevertheless invalid as a “mekach ta’ut” since there was excessive cheating involved. Tosefot, however, questions this ruling, since it seemingly contradicts another ruling made by Rav Nachman later in our masechta. On daf 108a Rav Nachman states that if a person sells land worth 100 for 200, the sale is indeed valid since ona’ah does not apply to land. So, it appears that when land is involved, not only is there no prohibition, but that the transaction is valid as well.

Tosefot cites an answer to reconcile these two rulings of Rav Nachman by a principle that Rabbeinu Tam proposes. When the price-gouging in the sale of land is up to double its value, the sale is valid, as in the case on 108a. However, if the cheating is more than double, the sale of the land is invalid. In other words, although there is no prohibition when transacting land for an exorbitant price, the sale is invalid if the price paid is more than double. The Torah appointed our Rabbinical Sages to determine the amount at which point the sale is invalid, and they set this price at anything more than double.

(This is the ruling of other Rishonim as well, and is the halacha according to the Rema in Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 227:29. Other Rishonim disagree with the opinion of Rabbeinu Tam, and rule that not only is there never a prohibition of ona’ah when dealing with land, but the sale is always valid, irrelevant of the extremely high price paid. See Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 227:29 for more details and discussion.)

  • Bava Metzia 57a

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