Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Shavuot 5760/2000

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
Prepared for Internet Publication by the Center for IT & IS Staff at Bar-Ilan University.
Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il


Shavuot 5760/ 8 June 2000

"Now this was formerly done in Israel:"

On Transactions (Kinyanim) in the Book of Ruth

Menahem Katz

Department of Talmud

A brief discussion in the Jerusalem Talmud (Tractate Kiddushin 1,5) presents a clear and concise historical review of ways of making transactions :

Originally a sales transaction was done by removal of the sandal. As it is written, "Now this was formerly done in Israel in cases of redemption or exchange: ... one man would take off his sandal and hand it to the other," etc. (Ruth 4:7). Who would take off his sandal? In Babylonia they said: [It was disputed by] Rav and Levi. One said the purchaser, the other said the seller....

Then they went over to purchasing by giving a sign...

Then they went over to purchasing by [transfer of] money, bill of sale, and possession.

In other words, at one time the accepted practice was to purchase certain things by taking off a shoe, but this method of transaction had already been cancelled in antiquity and was described in the Book of Ruth as "formerly done in Israel."

What sort of transaction was done by removal of a shoe? What did this act signify? Taking off one's shoe, removing something that was part of the person and giving it to another, symbolically expressed ceding one's right to ownership. The emphasis was on the act of concession. The act of removing the shoe was central, that of giving it to another, secondary. Therefore the Book of Ruth did not say "he drew off his sandal and gave it to his fellow [Boaz]." Rather, it said only "he drew off his sandal," for herein lay the main point.

The obvious association made by most people who read this verse in the book of Ruth is to the ritual of removing the sandal described in case of levirate marriage and halizah: "His brother's widow shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, pull the sandal off his foot," etc. (Deut. 25:5-10). Is there indeed any relation between removing the shoe as a form of kinyan, transaction, and the halizah ritual?

In our opinion the ritual of halizah described in the Torah is based on ancient transaction methods that dropped out of use in the course of time. Just as removing the sandal was an act of transaction signifying giving up a right or ownership, so too, the case of the widow's brother-in-law (yabam): he has a certain relationship to his deceased brother's widow and is interested in severing this relationship, i.e., he does not wish to marry his brother's widow. How does he do this? By performing a legal transaction of ownership signifying that he gives up his rights in this matter. The basis for halizah is the ancient practice described in Ruth, "formerly done in Israel in cases of redemption or exchange: to validate any transaction [= give it legal force] one man would take off his sandal and hand it to the other."

However, the Torah specified that this act be performed in a unique way due to the special circumstances involved. Since the yabam was not fulfilling his obligation to marry the wife of his deceased brother, the intention in the ceremony was to humiliate him. Therefore, instead of his removing his own sandal and giving it to the woman in the normal way, the transaction was done in a way showing contempt: she would take off his sandal, spit in his face, and say, "Thus shall be done to the man who will not build up his brother's house." Over the years the practice of sales transactions by removal of a sandal was dropped, and the only remnant that survived was the practice of removing the yabam's sandal in the ritual of halizah.

Despite the apparent similarities here, it seems to us that a distinction must be drawn. In Babylonia it was customary to mark a sales transaction by means of a sudar, a kerchief or scarf used to cover the head or wrap around the neck. This transaction in which ownership was officially transferred to the purchaser was accomplished by the buyer handing a sudar or other object to the seller, which object, of course, the seller would later return to the buyer.

According to the prevalent popular view that transactions using a sudar originated from transactions done by removing the sandal, we are witness to a most unusual development. We would have to conclude that an extremely ancient purchase practice that had already fallen into disuse in ancient times reemerged in the time of the amoraim, but only in Babylonia. For this practice is not mentioned in the land of Israel, neither in the time of the tannaim nor of the amoraim (cf., for example, S. Lieberman's remarks, cited in M. A. Friedman, Jewish Marriage in Palestine,II, p. 517).

This picture, however, is not precise. The practice of signifying a transaction by the seller removing his sandal had already disappeared in ancient times. As we explained it, this signified that the seller gave up his ownership and conceded his rights to something. The practice was never reinstituted, and apparently was replaced by the newer practice of transactions by bill of sale (shtar).

According to the halakhah, any generally accepted method of transaction is legally legitimate. Therefore, also a method of transaction that was not practiced in the land of Israel and was not mentioned in ancient sources was legitimate. In the eastern empire (first in Parthia and later in Sassanid Persia) the Jews of Babylonia encountered among their neighbors the practice of transactions by means of a sudar. What did this method of transaction express? It is nothing other than a symbolic development of the kinyan halippin, transactions by means of barter or exchange. In its form as kinyan sudar, the buyer did not give the full exchange value of the deal, but only a sort of down-payment, and a symbolic one at that, insofar as the seller would return the sudar to the buyer.

In contrast, transactions by means of removing a sandal were quite a different matter. As we said, they expressed not payment, whether partial or symbolic, but rather the concession made by the owner, giving up his right to the property. Therefore it was the seller who would take off his sandal, the emphasis being more on the act of removing the sandal than on handing the sandal to someone else.

When the rabbis in Babylonia addressed the issue of transactions by means of a sudar they not only accepted it as legitimate but took it one step further. In the fashion of midrash halakha, they connected the sudar transaction to the verse in the Book of Ruth and gave it greater force: "Now this was formerly done in Israel ... one man would take off his sandal and hand it to the other."

In conclusion, at one time sales were enacted when the seller took off his sandal and handed it to the buyer, thus expressing his willingness to give up his rights to the object. At a very early stage this type of transaction dropped out of use and was never reinstituted. A vestige of the practice survived in the ritual of halizah. On the other hand, at some time another method of transaction developed in the East, namely the symbolic use of a sudar which the purchaser would hand to the seller to symbolize a down-payment instead of actual transfer of funds. This kinyan was actually a development of the ancient barter transaction. By means of midrashic explanation, the Babylonian rabbis associated this sudar transaction with the biblical verse in Ruth which actually described the ancient and former method of transaction by concession.

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