Israel – Jerusalem: house that could not be sold

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 lTziyon  of Eretz Yisroel suggested that this practice should become a  universal minhag. This fact is mentioned in the biography of

Rav Yosef Chaim Zonnenfeld, Haish al Hachomah, in a section  that discusses Rav Yosef Chaim’s tremendous bekius 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 bekius 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 Haadamah written by the Rishon Ltziyon 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 Haaretz.  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 sefers 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 Haaretz 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 Haaretz 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.

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