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Shabbat Parashat Toldot 5778

P'ninat Mishpat: Disputed Commitment to Sell

(based on ruling 75058 of the Eretz Hemdah-Gazit Rabbinical Courts

Case: The plaintiff (=pl) rented a run-down apartment inherited by several brothers (=def; brother N lived closest and was most involved with pl). In return for doing extensive repairs/renovation, pl received 7,000 shekels, an exemption from rent for 6 months and an arguably lower than standard rent during a five-year contract. During the rental, pl continued to make renovations (which he claims cost him 250,000 shekels; all agree he continued after doing the renovations for which he received the aforementioned financial considerations). Pl claims that N and other brothers assured him he would be able to stay in the apartment for low rent and/or buy the apartment at a discount price. After the contract expired, def want to sell the apartment for 1,000,000 shekels, and if pl does not want to pay that price, he should vacate it so that they can sell it.      


Ruling: While pl claims he was promised that he could buy the apartment, and this is largely confirmed by def, it is not binding. A promise to sell is binding only if a kinyan is made to finalize the statement (Rambam, Mechira 1:1). Even according to the Israeli law that sales agreements can be forged orally, real estate is an exception to that rule. Furthermore, there is no indication that a certain price, a certain discount, or an exact mechanism for determining it was agreed upon for the sale. There is no halacha that if one improved another’s object, he gets to buy it at the price it was worth before his improvements.

On the other hand, pl is ostensibly deserving of full compensation for the improvements, even beyond covering his outlays. First, an apartment is a thing for which owners are happy to have improvements, if done properly (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 375:5). Secondly, in this case, def were all aware of the renovations, and no one protested. Some were even involved in helping, which turns the situation into one of “going into the field with permission.”  

Def presented a handwritten letter apparently signed by pl that def can sell the apartment without compensating pl for his work. Pl says it is forged and wants it sent to an expert in confirming signatures. Some of def said that pl did sign it but he did so without reading it, while in the middle of working. We do not think it needs to be sent to an expert because it is anyway not binding, as follows. It is true that one who signed a document cannot generally excuse himself with the claim that he did not read its content (Shulchan Aruch, CM 61:13). That is for a combination of two reasons: 1. We do not believe that he did not read it. 2. If he signed it without reading it, then he submitted himself to the consequences of being bound by what is written there. In this case, some of the brothers admit that they saw that he did not read the document, due to various circumstances. Poskim also posit that while one might open-endedly obligate himself to normal logical elements of the document, it makes no sense that pl would obligate himself to relinquish rights to any form of compensation for expensive renovations. Therefore, beit din will bring an assessor to determine how much one would pay someone to do renovations such as pl did in the apartment.

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