For over 300 years, from the mid 17th century until 1948, a five room apartment in the Old City of Yerushalayim possessed a status unequalled in the annals of housing lore – it was known as the house that could not be sold. Till today, a special plaque marks the site where the building once stood.
Bought in Difficult Circumstances
The house was bought at a time when ready cash was a rarity in the pockets of Yerushalayim’s Jews. Boruch ben David Almashraki (Mizrachi), the original buyer of the house, arrived in Yerushalayim in about 1620. Times were hard. A hundred years earlier, Sultan Suleiman the Great who ruled from 1520 to1566 improved security and beautified the city. Its population leaped from 5,600 to 16,000. Despite Jews and Christians having to pay a large poll tax, even the Jewish population leaped to 1,500 by the year 1562.
But with the death of Suleiman, the quality of Ottoman rule in Yerushalayim declined. Soon after Boruch Mizrachi’s arrival in Yerushalayim, the most notorious Yerushalayim governor of all time, Mahmoud Ibn Faruch, ruled over Yerushalayim in 1625 and 1626 with the help of brutal troops. An anonymous Jew calling himself Ish Yerushalayim, wrote a chronicle of the ruler’s wickedness and concluded by stating that he left the city’s Jews broke: “Until today we owe the Arabs dwellers of the land 50,000 grush, and the interest for that is 10,000 grush per annum.”
Despite the harsh times, Boruch Mizrachi somehow managed to buy an apartment that consisted of five rooms divided among various floors of a stone building. On Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan 1643, he drew up a will that granted the apartment to his sons. But he attached an unusual provision.
“Hashem has given me five rooms in Yerushalayim,” he wrote, providing an exact description of where the rooms were in the building.
“I bequeath them to my sons together with their seforim after my passing according to custom, but with the condition that the rooms should be for habitation only,” he continued. “They and their sons and grandsons until the last generation of the family has no permission to sell or to put a lien upon them, or to put a lien upon them to any kesubah, etc. They should remain until the coming of the moshiach, and then the rooms should return to me. I have done all this so that I should have an apartment here in Yerushalayim when our moshiach comes. The seforim should also not be sold or put under a lien, etc.”
Unusual as this will may seem, Boruch Mizrachi was not the only person to think of the idea of retaining an earthly dwelling place for eternity. Some hundred years later, the Rishon l’Tziyon of Eretz Yisroel suggested that this practice should become a universal minhag. This fact is mentioned in the biography of
Rav Yosef Chaim Zonnenfeld, Ha’ish al Hachomah, in a section that discusses Rav Yosef Chaim’s tremendous beki’us not only in Shas, Rishonim, and Acharonim, but even in obscure seforim few people knew about.
One of the many times Rav Yosef Chaim demonstrated such beki’us was in 1906, shortly after the passing of one Rav Yehuda Leib Zembraver who had been a talmid muvhak of Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin. Rav Yehuda Leib left an unusual will forbidding his heirs to sell his apartment in the Mishkenos neighborhood of Yerushalayim. His son, Rav Avigdor, was bothered by the will’s provision, as he wanted to marry off his daughter and was anxious to get his hands onto some ready cash. In desperation, he went to Rav Shmuel Salant’s bais din to see if there was some way to get around the will’s unusual provision.
As the dayonim was discussing the term of the will, Rav Yosef Chaim Zonnenfeld walked in and asked what was going on. “What are you surprised about?” he asked them after they explained what happened. “This matter is explicitly mentioned in the sefer Pri Ha’adamah written by the Rishon L’tziyon Rav Meyuchas Bechor Shmuel. He writes ‘that a father should command his heirs not to sell the apartment where he lived during his lifetime because we are waiting for the soon to come resurrection of the dead. The heirs should leave the apartment unsold so that it can be ready for its owner after the resurrection.”’
Possibly, one reason the minhag never became widespread is that it ostensibly contravenes the normative laws of inheritance, which do not allow a father to make conditions when bequeathing property to his heirs. In fact, some poskim write that the condition Rav Boruch Mizrachi laid down in his will forbidding his heirs to sell the property was downright invalid.
Despite such concerns, his heirs faithfully followed his instructions to the letter for many generations. This had an unexpected bonus. Because they could never sell the apartment, the family’s identity became fixed to the location and led to it becoming the oldest recorded Jewish family in Yerushalayim.
The family had many distinguished members over the years. Two of the most famous were Rav Nissim Chaim Moshe Mizrachi who served as Rishon l’Tziyon for five years in the 1740s and his brother, Rav Yisroel Meir Mizrachi. The two brothers were known as the Neiros Hamizrachim (Eastern Lights).
The Din Torah of 1905
In 1905, the unsellable Mizrachi house became involved in an unusual din Torah. This happened after a neighbor, Michael Roitman, made various additions in the property adjacent to the Mizrachi apartment, which caused various damages such as cutting off of light and invasion of privacy. When the bais din ruled that Roitman must compensate the Mizrachi family for the damage, the owner of the property, Elazar Eliyahu Mizrachi, adamantly refused to accept a cent. He claimed that since their ancestor had written that the heirs should sell no right in the apartment, any compensation accepted for damage to the apartment was tantamount to selling the apartment for that value and a violation of his ancestor’s will.
Instead, the two plaintiffs came to the following agreement. About 150 years earlier, the family ancestor Rav Yisroel Meir Mizrachi had written a three volume sefer Pri Ha’aretz. Two volumes had been published but the third was still in manuscript and had never seen the light of day. As indirect compensation, said the Mizrachi plaintiff, he was willing to have his offending neighbor print the sefer and keep any profit of loss deriving from the sefer’s sales for himself, in addition to selling fifty volumes of the sefer to the Mizrachi plaintiff. This satisfied the will’s conditions, for while benefiting from the printing of the sefer, the Mizrachi family gained no direct monetary profit.
The original will of Boruch Mizrachi and the compromise made by the bais din in 1905 are both printed at the beginning of Pri Ha’aretz volume 3 that was printed as a result of the unusual agreement.
The Mizrachi family lived in the old family home until the beginning of the 20th century when most wealthier Jews left the Old City for the more spacious and modern neighborhoods rising outside the Old City’s walls. The Mizrachi family joined the exodus, renting the apartment to Arab families until the Old City fell to the Jordanians in 1948.
The Mayors’ Promise
After Israel’s recapture of the Old City in 1967, the Israeli government expropriated a large part of the Old City including 105 stone buildings owned by Jews prior to 1948. The “Company for Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter” was appointed to renovate and rebuild the expropriated locale, while the government offered compensation and help with mortgages for alternative housing for previous owners of the area. Many Arabs refused the compensation as a political protest.
The Mizrachi family turned down the compensation for a different reason. Family members felt that accepting compensation for the building would be a violation of the terms of their ancient will. Instead, the development company agreed to mount a plaque on the new building erected on the family’s property, which bears a brief account of the family’s old attachment to the apartment’s past location in the Jewish Quarter’s Hamalach Street sited near the Armenian Quarter.
“On the 28th of Cheshvan 1643, Boruch Mizrachi dedicated his house that it should stand in this place for his sons and grandsons as an inheritance and dwelling until the arrival of the moshiach so that after the resurrection of the dead he should be able to once again dwell in his home,” The plaque states. “The will was publicized in the sefer Pri Ha’aretz volume 3 that was published in Yerushalayim through the efforts of Elazar Mizrachi, a descendant of the will’s writer. It [the will] was authorized anew by a bais din in 5765/1905 and the family lived in this house continuously from the time the will was written until recent generations. The connection and bond between the family and this historic site was renewed and eternalized by his descendants Shmuel and Raphael Shamir (Mizrachi) on the tenth anniversary after the liberation of Yerushalayim in 1977.”
Yerushalayim mayors Teddy Kollek, Uri Lopolianski, and Nir Barkat all promised that when the moshiach comes, the property will be restored to its original 17th century owner, Boruch ben David Mizrachi, under the terms of his ancient will.