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Shabbat Parashat Chayei Sara 5779

Ask the Rabbi: Bar Metzra

Rav Daniel Mann

Question: I want to soon sell my semi-detached house, which, as is common, is officially owned by the Jewish Agency and rented by me.  Do the halachot of giving precedence to buy to adjacent property owners (bar metzra) apply in my case? If yes: does the owner of the other half of my building take precedence over the neighbor from an adjacent building? Do I have to allow my neighbors bargain with me?  If they decline at my asking price and someone else bargains me down, do I have to return to the neighbors with that price?


Answer: The basis of the idea of the rights of a matzran (adjacent neighbor) to acquire real estate before others is a Rabbinic rule that exceeds the letter of the law but is a matter of “hayashar v’hatov” (straight and good) (Bava Metzia 108a). It is based on a general assumption that a neighbor gains more by obtaining the property than someone else, and we therefore expect the other to buy elsewhere (see Rashi ad loc.). It is not surprising that various opinions limit the scope of this novel extra-judicial halacha, especially when the logic in a given case differs from that of the gemara’s classic case.

Rabbeinu Tam (see Tosafot, Bava Metzia 108b) posits that bar metzra applies only to agricultural fields, where the ability to connect and work the fields together is valuable, not to houses. (The Rosh, Bava Metzia 9:34 makes other distinctions.) We do not accept this opinion (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 175:53). However, it is apparently not because we reject the concept that the logic has to apply, but that we reject the premise that an adjacent homeowner does not have significant reasons to benefit more (see Bi’ur Hagra ad loc.).

The Shulchan Aruch (ibid. 59) rules that the laws of bar metzra do not apply when one has rented out his land which his neighbor wants to rent, but only when he sells. Thus, your point that you and your buyer are/will be leasing from the Jewish Agency is cogent. However, a few contemporary piskei din (including one I co-authored) posit that since on practical grounds you bought your home and plan to sell it, the laws of bar metzra apply despite the formality that it is officially a long-term lease.

Regarding who is a bar metzra, poskim are also relatively practical. While bar metzra rules apply to adjacent single-family homes, that is because they can be “attached” for some joint usage (see Taz to CM 175:53; Pitchei Choshen, Matzranut 11:(61)). The Pitchei Choshen (ibid.) raises the importance of people within a building, even if their apartments are not adjacent, sharing stairways. In most cases, an apartment within one building cannot be “attached” to an apartment in another building. It is hard to determine without studying the layout and municipal rules of your situation whether your adjacent neighbor from a different building might have bar metzra rights; we assume that the owner of the other half of your building does.

Your personal responsibility to see to this matter is tricky. A seller does not have a halachic obligation per se to ask permission of neighbors, as the halacha focuses on the neighbor’s ability to claim the right to obtain the real estate from the buyer after his valid sale (see S’ma 175:7). Although the neighbor can protest before or after the sale, it does not seem that the seller must seek anyone out, and this is also common practice when one does not know of such interest.

If the bar metzra wants to buy, he must meet the eventual price. If the buyer tells the seller that he will not buy it, this precludes later protest (Shulchan Aruch, CM 175:31), but if he was not given the final price, he can claim (at least, if it holds water) that for the lower price, he would have bought it (see S’ma ad loc. 56). Therefore, if you know of a neighbor’s interest, it is wise to be up front on the matter. In most cases, the neighbor makes a good buyer anyway. (If there is a good, verifiable reason that selling to the neighbor is not advantageous to the seller, the rules of bar metzra do not apply (Shulchan Aruch and Rama ibid. 23).)

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