By Dr. Sara Ronis
Have you ever spent money on something and then immediately regretted it? Buyer’s remorse is a common response to spending a large amount of money on something. But one can also regret selling something — especially (though not necessarily) if the item was sold under financial duress.
Today’s daf asks: Can a seller ever reverse a sale and recover their property? Or is it too late?
To answer this question, today’s daf explores case studies, starting with this one:
Come and hear: A certain man sold land to Rav Pappa because he needed money to buy oxen. In the end, he did not need it and Rav Pappa returned his land to him.
Can we learn from Rav Pappa’s actions that all such sales can be reversed? The Gemara concludes that, in fact, we cannot, stating that Rav Pappa acted “beyond the letter of the law.” It’s worth remembering that Rav Pappa was both a rabbi committed to ethical ways of living and a financially successful brewer who supported a large household. The Gemara insists that Rav Pappa’s actions reflect his commitment to living ethically above and beyond legal requirements, but can’t be used to determine the legal baseline.
Perhaps another incident will help us answer the question?
Come and hear: There was a certain drought in Neharde’a and everyone sold his estate (in order to buy food). In the end, wheat arrived (and prices came down). Rav Nahman said to them: The halakhah is that the estates are returned to their owners.
Here, we have an entire community that sold their homes as they scrambled to feed their families. In the end, when the famine was averted by other means, Rav Nahman compelled the new owners to reverse the sales. Rav Nahman’s ruling suggests that if a seller regrets a sale because it turns out they don’t need the money, the sale is reversed — even when the buyer is not a wealthy and magnanimous rabbi.
But is this a good rule? Will people be reluctant to buy if the seller can too easily void the sale down the line? Who is going to want to spend money buying land or oxen or anything else if the seller can just change his mind when circumstances change? Won’t the market grind to a halt? Perhaps sensing this concern, the Gemara offers another possible reason Rav Nahman reversed the sale of homes in a famine. Perhaps the sale was invalid from the start:
The sale was in error, as it became known that the ship (with the wheat) was in the bays of the river.
If it was in fact known that wheat was on its way and the price would soon drop, then the sale of homes made under a false sense of duress would be considered invalid. In this way, Rav Nahman’s ruling doesn’t prove that sellers can reverse a sale, but limits such reversals to a specific circumstance: when property is sold based on incorrect information that was already present at the moment of sale.
At this point on today’s daf, we might expect the Gemara to continue delimiting circumstances in which one can reverse a sale. And yet, the Gemara foils this expectation. It ends the discussion with a radically more expansive version of the principle:
And the halakhah is that if one sold and did not need the money, the sale is reversed.
And since seller’s remorse has real legal implications, then buyer beware.
See you tomorrow!
Dr. Sara Ronis is an associate professor of Theology at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, TX where she teaches courses on the Hebrew Bible and its interpretation.