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A Responsum Concerning a Landlord-Tenant Dispute – Responsa in a Moment: Volume 2, Issue No. 2, November 2007

Ethical Issues
Jewish Law and Its Authority
Responsa by David Golinkin
The State of Israel

Hoshen Mishpat 312

Question:

Out of a desire to provide inexpensive housing for its students, a Jewish Educational Institution (hereafter: JEI) does not intend to renew the leases of some of its long-time tenants in two buildings which it owns. This is in keeping with the law, which allows “non-profit institutions…to take over building space for the sake of their programs”. The non-renewal of these leases will cause hardship to the tenants who will have to look for apartments in other parts of the city and will separate them from their fellow immigrants (This responsum was originally written in Shevat 5756 for a Jewish educational institution in the United States. It has been revised for publication here with the removal of any references to specific places or institutions).

My question is two-fold: Are there circumstances in which a landlord would not be permitted to take such an action? Are there any special obligations which fall upon a landlord taking such an action? Also, do any of these obligations change on the basis of the fact that the landlord is a corporation rather than a person, or on the basis of the fact that the landlord is a religious Jewish institution? And finally, do the purposes for which the landlord is taking over apartments (in our case, to make it easier for students to get housing) have any effect on the above matters?

Responsum:

1)  First of all, I believe that we need to rephrase the question. The question is not: “should the JEI not renew the leases of the long-time tenants of its buildings” but rather: “should the JEI not renew the leases of the long-time tenants of its buildings in order to provide inexpensive housing for its students and especially for its married students”. The phrasing of the question has a huge influence on the answer.

2) Secondly, it is clear that the law that you quote had in mind the very situation under discussion. In general, the law prohibits the non-renewal of leases because it assumes that the landlord is going to evict poor tenants in order to raise the rent and make a profit. On the other hand, it allows non-profit institutions to do so “for the sake of their programs” because it assumes that such an institution does not want to make a profit but needs additional space in order to perform its charitable or educational functions. Clearly, that is the motive of the JEI in this case.

3) As to your question, it is perfectly in keeping with Jewish law and tradition not to renew the leases in question in order to provide inexpensive housing for JEI students, and this for three reasons:

  1. A) I have not seen the actual leases in question, but if you study the talmudic and halakhic sources (Bava Metzia 101b; Rif ad loc., ed. Vilna 59a (with the commentary of Prof. Lieberman in Tosefta Kifshuta to Bava Metzia, Chapter 8, p. 275); Rambam, Hilkhot Sekhirut 6:6 ff; and Shulhan Arukh Hoshen Mishpat 312). you will see that at the most, if there was no stipulation in the lease, a landlord would have to give a tenant twelve months notice. On the other hand, if the rental was for a fixed time, the landlord is allowed to remove the tenant at the end of the stipulated time and does not need to wait “even one hour”. Therefore, I would suggest comparing the language of the leases to the above halakhot (Jewish laws) in order to ensure that the amount of notice being given to the tenants is in keeping with Jewish law.
  2. B) There is a basic concept related to the giving of tzedakah which can be applied to the case under discussion. Rabbi Yosef Karo says ( Yoreh De’ah 251:3) that:

the poor of his house take precedence over the poor of his city, and the poor of his city take precedence over the poor of another city.

Rabbi Moshe Isserles adds ( ibid.):

His sustenance takes precedence over every other person’s and he should not give tzedakah until he has his own sustenance, and then he should sustain his mother and father first if they are poor, and they take precedence over the sustenance of his sons, [who take precedence over his] …siblings…other relatives. And his relatives take precedence over his neighbors, and his neighbors over the people of his town and the people of his town over the people of another town…

A similar approach is found in a midrash which condemns a man who sold his house and ignored the financial needs of his family in order to give the money to tzedakah ( Leviticus Rabbah 37:2, ed. Margaliot, pp. 856-860).

The lesson for our case is clear. The JEI has a halakhic and moral obligation to help its own students with low-rent housing before it helps others. Many JEI students are financially strapped: They are living off of student loans which it takes them many years to repay. They do not receive financial support from their parents. If the JEI does not provide them with affordable housing, they either have to take out larger loans in order to pay exorbitant rents or they have to commute long distances in order to attend classes. The latter option also prevents them from being part of the JEI community. Thus, according to the principle cited above, the JEI is halakhically obligated to provide low-rent housing for its own students before it does so for other people.

  1. C) Lastly, the financial support of students and scholars has always been viewed as one of the greatest mitzvot (Berakhot 10b; Sanhedrin 92a; and Seder Eliyahu Rabbah, Chapter 18, ed. Friedman, p. 91). which takes precedence over other forms of tzedakah ( Yoreh De’ah 251:9 and cf. ibid. 253:11; 252:4, 9; and 242:34). Providing affordable housing for students is undoubtedly in keeping with this tradition.
  2. D) One could reply to points B and C by citing the principle “that one gives sustenance to the non-Jewish poor along with the Jewish poor for the sake of peace” (Tosefta Gittin 3:13, ed. Lieberman, p. 259; Yerushalmi Gittin 5:9, fol. 47c; Bavli Gittin 61a; Rambam, Matnot Aniyim 7:7; and Yoreh Deah 251:1 in the Rema). However, that principle only indicates that Jews should also give tzedakah to non-Jews. It does not indicate that tzedakah to non-Jews takes priority over tzedakah to Jews. The prioritization was spelled out in paragraphs B and C above and clearly indicates that helping students takes precedence over helping one’s neighbors.
  3. E) Thus far we have seen that the proposed course of action is entirely in keeping with the Jewish laws of rental and tzedakah. There is, however, one objection that can be raised to all of the above – that of ” hillul hashem ” or the desecration of God’s name. Will the proposed course of action desecrate God’s name and exacerbate race relations in the wake of an attack on a Jewish-owned store that was related to this case? Hillul hashem is one of the negative commandments found in the Torah ( Leviticus 22:32; Rambam, Sefer Hamitzvot, Negative Commandments, No. 63; Sefer Hahinukh, No. 314). Indeed, many Sages used this commandment in order to prohibit stealing from a non-Jew (Tosefta Bava Kamma 10:15, ed. Lieberman, p. 53; Yerushalmi Bava Kamma 4:3, fol. 4b; Yerushalmi Bava Metzia 2:5, fol. 8c; Bavli Bava Kamma 113a-b). and, according to a midrash (Gittin 46a), Joshua kept his oath to the Givonim (Joshua, Chapter 9) despite the fact that it was extracted by fraud, in order to sanctify God’s name in the eyes of the Gentiles.

The case under discussion involves neither theft nor any wrongdoing whatsoever. Yet I believe that the JEI should deal with the tenants in as gentle a fashion as possible and go “lifnim mishurat hadin” – beyond the letter of the law – by affording the tenants extra time and some financial assistance in order to find new housing. Otherwise, the JEI’s actions, which are both legally and halakhically justified, may nonetheless lead to hillul hashem, and this is an outcome that must be avoided (According to a midrash, God may overlook idolatry but not hillul hashem – see Leviticus Rabbah 22:6, ed. Margaliot, p. 514).

David Golinkin
Jerusalem
16 Marheshvan 5768


All four volumes of Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin’s Responsa In A Moment – Halakhic Responses to Contemporary Issues as well as other books by the author are available for purchase from the Schocken-JTS Press Bookstore.

Prof. David Golinkin is President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Feel free to reprint this article in its entirety. If you wish to abbreviate it, please contact Rabbi Golinkin at golinkin@schechter.ac.il . The opinions expressed here are the author’s and in no way reflect an official policy of the Schechter Institute.

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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