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Supernal Real Estate


According to Torah law, your neighbor is not just the fellow on the other side of the fence but someone toward whom you have certain responsibilities and obligations. One of these is spelled out in the law of bar mitzra (lit. “the one on the boundary”), which states that when a person wishes to sell his field, his neighbors (i.e., those who own land that borders the land being sold) must be given first priority to purchase it, provided that they are prepared to meet the price and terms of any prospective buyer. This law is enforced by the court, to the extent that if the property is sold to an outside buyer without being first offered to a neighbor, the neighbor has the right to pay the purchase price to the buyer and evict him from the land.[1]

Halachah (Torah law) is more than a divinely ordained code of behavior for life on earth: it also describes G-d’s own “code of behavior,” the manner in which He chooses to relate to His creation. In the words of the Midrash:

“G-d’s way is not like the way of flesh and blood. The way of flesh and blood is that he instructs others to do, but does not do so himself; with G-d, however, what He Himself does, that is what He tells Israel to do and observe.”[2]

If G-d commanded us the law of bar mitzra, He conforms to it Himself.

Thus, the Talmud tells us that when Moses “ascended to heaven” to receive the Torah from G-d,

…the angels protested to G‑d: “What is a human being doing amongst us?” Said He to them: “He has come to receive the Torah.” Said they to Him: “This esoteric treasure, which was hidden with You for nine hundred and seventy-four generations before the world was created, You wish to give to flesh and blood?…  Place Your glory upon the heavens!”

Said G‑d to Moses: “Answer them.”

Said [Moses]: “Master of the Universe! This Torah that You are giving to me, what is written in it? ‘I am the L‑rd Your G‑d, who has taken you out from the land of Egypt.’ Have you descended to Egypt?” asked Moses of the angels. “Have you been enslaved to Pharaoh? So why should the Torah be yours? What else does it say? ‘You shall have no alien gods.’ Do you dwell amongst idol‑worshipping nations? … ‘Remember the Shabbat day.’ Do you work? …  ‘Do not swear falsely.’ Do you do business? … ‘Honor your father and your mother.’ Do you have parents? ‘Do not kill,’ ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not steal.’ Is there jealousy among you?  Do you have an evil inclination?”[3]

As the commentaries[4] explain, the angels had a legal claim on the Torah–the neighbor’s prerogative stipulated by the law of bar mitzra. For the Torah is G-d’s “esoteric treasure”: before it was given to us at Sinai it was a wholly spiritual manifesto, “written of yore before Him in black fire upon white fire,”[5] relating exclusively to the spiritual infrastructure of creation. Thus we are told that at Sinai G-d spoke to us “from the heavens,”[6] and that Moses “ascended to heaven,”[7] entering into a spiritual state of being,[8] in order to receive the Torah. We, argued the angels, are the Torah’s natural neighbors; it should be offered to us before it is translated into a doctrine for physical life for some distant earthly customer.[9]

Five Answers

As the Talmud relates, G-d told Moses to respond to the angels’ claim.[10]Indeed, on what grounds might Moses have defended the legality of the contract between G-d and Israel? Why should not the law of bar mitzra apply to the Torah? The commentaries[11] offer the following answers:

1) The law of bar mitzra applies only to a sale, not to a gift–the owner is obviously free to make a gift of his field to whomever he desires.[12] Since G-d granted us the Torah, the angels’ claim has no basis.

2) The law of bar mitzra applies only to real estate, not to transportable objects.[13] The Torah, which is a portable entity (as evidenced by the fact that it was “transported” to earth), is thus exempt from this law.

3) If a person wishes to sell his field to a family member, he is permitted to do so without first offering it to his neighbor. [14] The people of Israel are G-d’s children[15] and His “close relatives.”[16] Thus, the law of bar mitzra is not applicable to Israel’s purchase of the Torah.

4) A sale to a partner is likewise exempt from the bar mitzra requirement.[17] The Talmud states that “any judge who judges law with an utter exactitude of truth, becomes a partner with G-d in creation.”[18] Moses, being such a juror of Torah law,[19] is thus considered G-d’s partner, and may purchase property from Him over the objections of the property’s supernal neighbors. (Keeping the Shabbat also deems one “a  partner with G-d in creation.”[20] Since the Jewish people had been given the mitzvah of Shabbat several weeks before Sinai,[21] they, too, are G-d’s “partners,” and thus free to “purchase” the Torah.)

5) The Torah refers to Moses as a “man of G-d,” half mortal, half supernal.[22] So he was no less a “neighbor” to the spiritual Torah than his celestial competitors. (Again, the same could be said of the people of Israel, whose souls are “carved from beneath the Supernal Throne” of G-d.[23])

However, each of these defenses has its difficulties. Regarding the first defense, while it is true that the Torah is called a “gift” from Above (as in Numbers 21:18), it is also called an “inheritance” (Deuteronomy 33:4), and a “purchase” (Proverbs 4:2; Midrash Rabbah, Shemot 33:1). As we have elaborated on another occasion,[24] these three metaphors describe three distinct elements in Torah and the manner of its “possession” by the people of Israel. Thus, the angel’s claim to the Torah stands, at least in regard to the “purchase” aspect of Torah.

As for the second defense, the reason why the law of bar mitzra does not apply to a portable object is that a portable object has no defined place, and thus no true neighbors: anyone can acquire it anywhere and transport it to his property. In our case, however, the Torah’s defining “place” is the very issue at hand. The angels were insisting that it should remain “in heaven” and spiritual in essence, while Moses’ purchase would mean its removal to earth and the redefinition of its primary function as a doctrine for physical life. Indeed, after we received it at Sinai, the Torah is expressly “not in heaven,” and completely under terrestrial jurisdiction.[25]The Torah’s “sale” to Israel meant that the angels would no longer have access to the Torah–at least not as something of their own environment (in the same way that the Torah’s remaining “in heaven” would have meant that we could relate to it only on the esoteric level, not as a sanctifier of physical life).[26] It follows, then, that as regards the law of bar mitzra,the Torah is indeed supernal “real estate,” and ought to be subject to the neighbor’s prerogative claimed by the angels.

Finally, all five explanations beg the question: where is there mention of any of this in Moses’ response? If the basis of the angels’ argument to G-d, “Place Your glory upon the heavens!” is the law of bar mitzra, then Moses must explain why this clause is not applicable in this case. Yet nowhere in Moses’ words do we find a sign of any of these five defenses. Indeed, as far as the third, fourth and fifth defenses are concerned, Moses seems to be saying the very opposite. The gist of Moses’ response is that, unlike the angels, the Jewish people are physical beings inhabiting a profane and even heretical world–a world marked by jealousy, dishonesty and idolatry–and thus they have need of and rights to the Torah. Instead of refuting the angels’ claim by speaking of Israel’s innate spirituality (defense no. 5) or their relationship or partnership with G-d (3 and 4), Moses seems to be confirming it by emphasizing Israel’s distance from their divine origins and the spirituality of the heavens.

Housing Development

Our sages teach that “the purpose of the creation of all worlds, supernal and ephemeral,” is that G-d “desired a dwelling in the lowly realms.”[27] G-d desired to create a “lowly realm”–a world that is virtually devoid of all manifest expression of His truth–and that this lowly realm should be made into a home for Him, a “dwelling” that serves and facilitates His presence.

Thus, the world was created:

“For the sake of the Torah and the sake of Israel”[28]

The people of Israel are the builders of this home for G-d, and the Torah is the instrument of its construction. The people of Israel inhabit the physical universe–the “lowly realm” where G-d desired to dwell. The Torah instructs the Jew how to transform material things such as animal hides, palm fronds and silver coins into holy and G-dly things such as a pair of tefillin, a lulav, and charity. With the Torah as his blueprint and empowerer, the Jew transforms a mundane world into an environment that is receptive and subservient to the divine reality.

Why is the sanctification of the physical world referred to as the making of  a “dwelling” for G-d? Because the home is the human model that most accurately expresses the significance of what we achieve through our fulfillment of the Torah’s blueprint for life. There are many environments and structures that house or contain a person and serve his needs in the course of his day and life. A person might spend many toilsome hours in a field, tilling its soil to derive sustenance from the earth; others mark time in offices, factories and laboratories to earn a livelihood. Man also constructs buildings to serve his educational, health, legal, and entertainment needs, and vehicles to move him across land, sea and air. What all these “containers” have in common is that they each house a specific aspect of the person, as opposed to the person himself. They shelter and facilitate the farmer, the businessman, the student, the patient, the art critic and the vacationer, rather than the man. All these are places where a person fulfills a certain role or procures a certain need; only at home is he himself. Echoing the Talmudic adage:

“A man without a homestead is not a man,”[29]

Chassidic teaching interprets the concept of a “dwelling” as “a place that houses a person’s very essence.”[30]

This is what is meant when we say that “G-d desired a dwelling in the lowly realms.” G-d has many venues for the expression of His reality–He created many spiritual worlds or “realms,” each of which conveys another face of His infinitely-faceted truth. But only the “lowly realm” of our physical world can be His home, the environment that houses His essence.

For the wisdom of the sage is not revealed in his scholarly discourse with his colleagues, but in his ability to explain the loftiest of concepts to the simplest of minds. The benevolence of the philanthropist is seen not in his generosity to his family and friends, but in his kindness toward the most undeserving of recipients. The power of the torch is expressed not by the light it sheds upon its immediate surroundings, but by illumination of the most distant point its light can reach. By the same token, the infinity and all-pervasiveness of the divine truth is expressed not in the spirituality of the heavens, but in the sanctification of material earth. When the physical world–“whose workings are harsh and evil and the wicked prevail there” for it is dominated by forces that seem indifferent and even opposed to the divine will[31]–is made to express the divine truth, it becomes a “dwelling” for G-d. When the lowliest and most profane of G-d’s creations is made to serve Him, there has been constructed a true home for Him, an edifice that houses His very essence.

Therein lies the ultimate refutation of the angels’ claim on the Torah. The law of bar mitzra states that:

“If the outside buyer wishes to build homes on the land and the neighbor wishes to seed it, the outside buyer retains the land, since the civilization of the land takes precedence, and the law of bar mitzra is not applied in this case.”[32]

Thus Moses said to the angels: Do you have an evil inclination? Do you deal with the mundanities of the marketplace? Do you dwell in a pagan world? So to what end should you be given the Torah? To cultivate another lush garden of spiritual delights? But G-d wants a home. Only we, who daily grapple with the deceit, the strife and the profanity that marks the lowliest stratum of G-d’s creation, can construct with the Torah a dwelling for Him, a place to house His quintessential self.

Based on address by the Rebbe, Shavuot 5718 (1958)[33]

Adapted from the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe by Yanki Tauber

[1]. Talmud, Bava Metzia 108a; Mishneh Torah, Laws Regarding Neighbors, chs. 12-14; Shulchan Aruch, part IV, 175:5-63.
The Talmud cites this law as a classical case of “one profits, while the other suffers no loss” (the buyer profits in that he can cultivate both properties as a single contiguous field, saving him the added expense of cultivating two fields in two separate places; the seller suffers no real loss, since he gets his price, nor does the prospective non-neighboring buyer, who can purchase a field of equal quality and value somewhere else). Thus, the court enforces the principle “you shall do what is just and good” (Deuteronomy 6:18–i.e., it is forbidden to act maliciously, even if it is within your “legal” rights).

[2]. Midrash Rabbah, Shemot 30:4.

[3]. Talmud, Shabbat 89a.

[4]. Shetei Yadot, p. Terumah; Sh’eirit Yaakov, p. Bamidbar; Chida (P’nei Dovid and Rosh Dovid, p. Yitro; Chasdei Avot, 3:14); Be’er Yitzchak, p. Yitro (2); Maarchei Lev, Mattan Torah (12); Brit Avot, p. Yitro; Sefat Emet, p. Yitro; Nachal Yitzchsak, Pesach Shaar I & II; et al.

[5]. Rashi, Deuteronomy 33:2.

[6]. Exodus 20:19; Deuteronomy 4:31.

[7]. Talmud, ibid., and numerous other.

[8]. “And he (Moses) was there (atop Mount Sinai) with G-d for forty days and forty nights; bread he did not eat, nor water did he drink”–Exodus 34:28.

[9]. This also explains why Moses could not simply reply to the angels: “Open up the Torah and have a look: virtually every section is prefaced with the words, ‘Command the children of Israel,’ ‘Speak to the children of Israel,’ etc.” For the law of bar mitzra gives the neighbor the right to purchase the field even after the buyer has already taken possession of it.

[10]. According to Rashi on Bava Metzia, ibid., the law of bar mitzrapertains primarily to the prospective purchaser, forbidding him to purchase a field desired by its neighbor and obligating him to resell it to the neighbor should he actually purchase it (see Likkutei Sichot, vol. XIX, pp. 55-57). This explains why G-d directed the angels’ claim to Moses, who, as the purchaser, was the alleged violator of the bar mitzra law.

[11]. See sources cited in note 4 above.

[12]. Talmud, Bava Metzia 108b; Mishneh Torah, ibid., 13:1; Shulchan Aruch, ibid., 54.

[13]. Mishneh Torah, ibid., 13:4; Shulchan Aruch, ibid., 53.

[14]. Rif, cited in Shitah Mekubetzet on Talmud, ibid.; Bahag, cited by Beit Yosef on Tur, part IV, 175; Shach on Shulchan Aruch, ibid., sub-section 30.

[15]. Deuteronomy 14:1.

[16]. “K’rovim“–Deuteronomy 4:7.

[17]. Mishneh Torah, ibid., 12:5; Shulchan Aruch, ibid., 49.

[18]. Talmud, Shabbat 10a, as per Exodus 18:13.

[19]. Indeed, the verse from which the Talmud derives this is speaking about Moses.

[20]. Talmud, ibid., 119b.

[21]. During their encampment in Marah, as per Talmud, Sanhedrin 56b. See also Exodus 16:29-30.

[22]. Deuteronomy 33:1; Psalms 90:1; Midrash Rabbah, Devarim 11:4.

[23]. Zohar III, 29b.

[24]. See “Property Rights” in Beyond the Letter of the Law (VHH, 1995).

[25]. Deuteronomy 30:12. In Bava Metzia 49b, the Talmud gives the following account of a halachic dispute between Rabbi Eliezer and his colleagues:
Rabbi Eliezer brought them all sorts of proofs, but they were rejected…. Finally, he said to them: “If the law is as I say, may it be proven from heaven!” There then issued a heavenly voice which proclaimed: “What do you want of Rabbi Eliezer–the law is as he says.…” Whereupon Rabbi Joshua stood on his feet and said: “The Torah is not in heaven!”… (We take no notice of heavenly voices, since You, G-d, have already, at Sinai, written in the Torah to follow the majority.)
Rabbi Nathan met Elijah the Prophet and asked him: “What did G-d do at that moment?” [Elijah] replied: “He smiled and said: ‘You have triumphed over Me, My children, you have triumphed.’”

[26]. The law of bar mitzra applies only when comparable fields are available at other locations, and the issue is only who should be subjected to the trouble of purchasing elsewhere (see note 1 above). This is consistent with the debate between Moses and the angels as to whether the Torah might be “sold” to earth: in either case, both the angels and the people of Israel would still be able to study the Torah, but only one of them would enjoy the Torah as something that is of their element.

[27]. Midrash Tanchuma, Nasso 16; Tanya, ch. 36.

[28]. Rashi, Genesis 1:1.

[29]. Yevamot 63a, as per Tosfot.

[30]. Ohr HaTorah, Balak 997; Yom Tov Shel Rosh Hashanah 5666, p. 3; et al.

[31]. Tanya, ch. 6; ibid., ch. 36.

[32]. Mishneh Torah, ibid., 14:1; Talmud, Bava Metzia 108b; Shulchan Aruch, ibid., 26.

[33]. Likkutei Sichot, vol. XVIII, 28-34.


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