Much of Parashat Behar pertains to the sale of real estate in the Land of Israel, both land and houses. The Torah defines a special category of real estate: “Houses in a Walled City (Batei arei choma)”. There are two major differences between the sale of a house in a walled city and the sale of any other house:
- Any other house can be bought back (“redeemed”) by its original owner at any time. A house in a walled city can only be bought back within one year of its sale.
- Any other house automatically returns to the possession of its original owner in the Jubilee Year (“Yovel”), meaning that the house is not being “sold”, but, rather, being “rented long-term” for up to fifty years. A house in a walled city, if it is not bought back within the first year, becomes the permanent property of the purchaser. It does not ever revert back to its original owner.
The laws of the walled city seem to go against the grain of the Torah. The Torah makes an explicit point when it mandates the return of all real estate (houses and fields) to their original owners in the Jubilee Year [Vayikra 25:23]: “The land shall not be sold permanently, for the land belongs to Me, for you are strangers and [temporary] residents with Me”. We cannot sell what is not ours. G-d gives us certain rights to the land but those rights are not absolute. Why, then, can houses in walled cities be irreversibly sold?
The commentators offer a wide array of answers. Medieval commentators, led by Rabbi Hezkiah bar Manoach, explain that the Torah restricts only land from being sold permanently. Houses, on the other hand, can be sold in perpetuity. When land is adjacent to a field, it is considered subservient to the field and so we levy the same restrictions of the sales of fields to the sale of the adjacent house. A house in a walled city is totally disconnected from the surrounding fields and so it can be bought and sold without any restrictions.
Rabbi Meir Simcha HaKohen from Dvinsk, who lived in the early twentieth century, proposes a security-centric theory. Writing in the “Meshech Chochma”, Rabbi Meir Simcha notes that walls are typically built around a city in order to protect it from potential enemies. Cities with higher security risks, such as border towns or outposts, are more likely to build walls than cities that do not share these risks. For example, nearly all Jewish towns (yishuvim) in Judea and Samaria are surrounded by security fences while most towns in pre-1967 Israel are not. Even though a security fence limits the growth of a town, it is accepted by most natives as a necessary evil. What would happen if one day all of the people in Elon Moreh, an Israeli town literally surrounded by Arabs, would leave town and were replaced by newcomers? The impact on security would be enormous. All of the experience gained over the years – where to wait for a bus, where not to wait for a bus, who the friendly neighbours are, who to be wary of – would be lost. In order to ensure that the town retains its high security rating, people who move in move in forever.
Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveichik, the leader of American Jewry in the twentieth century, takes Rabbi Meir Simcha’s theory to another level. Rabbi Soloveichik begins his explanation by noting that in ancient times, the symbol of security was a wall. Today, that symbol has evolved into things like Iron Dome, David’s Sling and Trophy. Rabbi Soloveichik asks, “Can any wall, real or symbolic, really provide security against merciless fate?” He brings an example from the Book of Ruth in which a person named Elimelech tries to escape from a famine that is devastating the Land of Israel. He emigrates to Moab, which provides him a sort of “walled city”. Nevertheless, Elimelech and his sons die in Moab. His wife, Naomi, leaves the safety and security of the “walled city” and returns to Israel, where her Moabite daughter-in-law, Ruth, and her husband, Boaz, “build the most secure, permanent entity in Jewish history: the eternal Kingdom of David and the Kingdom of the Messiah.”
Rabbi Soloveichik’s approach seems to be problematic: if depending on walls is bad for the Jews, why do people living in walled cities merit permanent ownership of their homes? He addresses this difficulty by pointing us at a quirk in one of the verses discussing the laws of the “House in a Walled City” [Vayikra 25:30]: “But if it is not redeemed by the end of a complete year, then that house which is in the city that has a wall, shall remain permanently [the property] of the one who purchased it… It will not leave [his possession] in the Jubilee.” The word “lo” in the phrase “asher lo choma” – “that has a wall” – is written with the letter aleph but is interpreted as if it were written with a vav. While the pronunciation of the word is unchanged whether it is written with a vav or with an aleph, when it is written with an aleph, the phrase is translated as “that does not have a wall” – the complete opposite of its simple translation. In fact, the Talmud in Tractate Arachin [32a] rules that a city is halachically considered a walled city as long as it had a wall during Joshua’s conquest of the Land of Israel, even if that wall subsequently fell. Rabbi Soloveichik builds on this: “Superficially, Jewish destiny may seem to be ‘unwalled’, insecure, but this is only an illusion. If one studies Jewish history, one must of necessity read the word with a vav – Jewish destiny is protected with a wall.” There is nothing inherently bad about walls, per se, unless we become overly dependent upon them and panic when we see no physical walls between us and our enemies.
Allow me to add my own security layer to Rabbi Soloveichik’s explanation. Whether the word “lo” is written with an aleph or a vav, the word is still grammatically incorrect. Recall that Hebrew words have gender. A word can be either masculine or feminine. The word “ir” – city – is feminine. The correct translation of “city that has a wall” is “ir asher lah choma”. The word lah is spelled not with an aleph or a vav, but with a heh. Rashi notices this and explains that the Torah had to use the grammatically incorrect lo-with-a-vav in order to facilitate the lo-with-a-vav / lo-with-an-aleph innovation. I suggest that the Torah purposely does not use the correct lah-with-a-heh in order to emphasize that the entire concept of protection by a physical wall is completely irrelevant, whether that wall once existed or still exists. Do not think that a brick wall will ever make you more secure. In the late 1980’s, in response to Arab rock attacks on roads in Judea and Samaria, Israeli drivers began to equip their cars with shatter-proof glass. It didn’t take long before the terrorists moved from rocks to bullets. Israelis responded by equipping their cars with bullet-proof glass. The terrorists responded by moving to rockets. Israel responded by fielding Iron Dome. The cycle is endless and the message is clear. While we must make every effort to protect ourselves from our enemies, we must never forget that at the end of the day, ultimate protection comes only from the Ultimate Protector [Psalms 121:4]: “The Guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps”.
Rabbi Soloveichik concludes, “Today we feel insecure and apprehensive about Israel’s ability to defend herself against numerically superior enemies. Yet, we are impressed by the equanimity that the [Israeli] displays in the face of their threats. He feels that he is protected, living in a city surrounded by a security wall, even though there is no wall. A spiritual wall protects the Jew from the surrounding hostile nations that want to destroy him.” The drums of war are beating ever louder in the Middle East. The United States seems to be daring Iran to restart enriching Uranium. It has moved an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the Persian Gulf in a show of force. One unintended move could lead to a shooting war. With the threat of missiles from Iran and her proxies in Lebanon and Gaza raining down on Israel, we must prepare for the worst. But as we ready our missile defence batteries and prepare for emergency mobilization of our reserves soldiers, we must keep at least one eye firmly focused on the sky, on our Father in Heaven, on our Wall.
Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5779
Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and Tzvi ben Shoshana.
 Better known as the Chizkuni. He lived in France in the thirteenth century.
 Certain people in high office still see walls as symbols of security.
 I’ve been in Israeli for 37 years and I still make copious gender mistakes when I speak.
 For you grammar aficionados, the word “lah” has a mapik in the heh.
 The Torah commands us [Devarim 4:15] “You shall watch over yourselves very well”