“And the Land will not be sold for ever, for the Land is mine since you are aliens and residents with me.” (VaYikra 25:23) Here the Torah explains the principle of the returning of land to its owner during Yovel/the Jubilee Year. We do not have absolute ownership of our properties in Israel for the Land of Israel is the inheritance of G-d. We live in the land as aliens and transients. Therefore we do not have the right to sell a field of our inheritance for more than the Yovel.
The Baal Halachot Gedolot explains that there is no Scriptural prohibition in our verse and therefore he does not count it in his enumeration of the Taryag mitzvot since this verse only describes a negation and not a prohibition. That is to say that the Torah is elucidating the impossibility of selling the land for perpetuity. However there is no action that is prohibited by this verse. Even if someone attempts to sell his field forever, the sale is nullified at Yovel and the field returns to its owner.
Many Rishonim disagree. Rashi explains that the Torah is admonishing the buyer not to retain the field by force upon the arrival ofYovel.
The Rambam (Shmitta v’yovel 11,1) wrote that if a man sold his field for perpetuity, the sale is invalid. However, both the buyer and the seller have transgressed a negative commandment. It appears that this is similar to interest in that even though both parties agree, they are doing something that is in opposition to the will of G-d. (The Ramban in Sefer HaMitzvot quotes the Rambam who posits that it is possible to make a sale on condition that the buyer does not return the property at the Yovel, just as one may make a loan on condition the Shmitta does not cancel the debt. However, in our text of the Rambam it is not found.)
The Ramban writes at length regarding this mitzva. In his commentary on the Torah he poses the following challenge to Rashi: If the prohibition is essentially on the buyer, the Torah should have written, “You shall not buy the land in perpetuity.”?! He attempts to reconcile this by saying that if the prohibition was on the seller, the Torah should have written “You shall not sell…” However, “Shall not be sold” can apply to the buyer as well. In conclusion the Ramban agrees with the Rambam that there is a prohibition to execute any sale forever and the prohibition is either on the seller or on both parties.
In his gloss on the Sefer HaMitzvot (lavim, 227) the Ramban adds that if a person sells without any stipulation of time he will certainly not violate this prohibition. Only if one states explicitly that the sale is for perpetuity does he contravene this negative commandment. Nevertheless, the Ramban goes on to quote from the Sages that bring this verse in the context of the halachathat a non-Jew has no right of acquisition in the Land of Israel (Gittin 47a). Acc0rding to this the Ramban offers a new and surprising interpretation: The verse prohibits the sale of the Land of Israel to gentiles because they are not commanded to observe the mitzvot of Shmita and Yovel and, as such, the sale to a gentile would be forever!
The Ramban establishes a parallel between this mitzva and the prohibition of selling a Jew as a slave to a non-Jew in a way that he will not be released during Yovel that appears in our Parsha. The reason is “For unto me the people of Israel are servants.” The Ramban concludes, “…but, we must be careful that our sale of the Land should be in such a way that it return to us no matter what, and we should not leave it in their hands forever. And the Torah gave a similar reason as the reason mentioned in regards to (selling) people… For in his Land, may His Name be exalted and blessed, we are all aliens and transients with Him and He does not desire to settle anyone else in the Land but us. It shall remain and return to us.”
We can see from the Ramban that the essence of the Passukis to prohibit the transfer of the Land to “strange” hands. This corresponds perfectly with the words of the Ramban in his commentary on the Sefer HaMitzvot (Mitzva 4) that there is a positive commandment to inherit the Land and that we should not leave it in the hands of any of the nations of the world. (There the Ramban is addressing the national aspect of the mitzva and here the individual one. Accordingly, one should explain the necessity of this verse in spite of the existence of a different prohibition “You shall not give the non-Jew any encampment in the Land.”)
Another surprising explanation is found in the Netziv’s HaaMek Davar. He, too, connects this verse to the prohibition of selling to a non-Jew, but in a completely different manner. By introduction, the Netziv lived in the period of the first glimmer of the redemption and the settlement of Israel. One of the questions that engaged the new settlers and the great rabbis of that time and stirred tremendous controversy was the issue of how to deal with Shmita. There were those who backed theHetter Mechira/”Sale of the Land” because of the extenuating circumstances and dire economic conditions in order to support the fledgling settlement. However, the Netziv was opposed specifically because of his great love for the Land of Israel and his belief in the return to Zion only through meticulous performance of the mitzvot, especially the mitzvot of the Land. More over, the mitzva of Shmita was especially critical in his eyes since it is identified as a cause of Exile. He, therefore saw it as a holy responsibility to observe the Sabbatical year in all of its details and was among the great rabbis who contested the Hetter Mechira.
In his commentary on this verse the Netziv saw the command to refrain from selling any part of the Land of Israel to a non-Jew at any time, not just during Shmita. According to his understanding the word, “Tzmitut”, is not about selling the land in perpetuity. Rather it connotes an “absolute” sale. The Torah already “divined” that there would be Jews who would attempt to circumscribe the laws of Shmita by selling their land to a gentile for the year of Shmitah. Therefore, the Torah comes and admonishes us that we do not have ownership of the Land during the Sabbatical year. How can we sell it to a gentile!?
We conclude with the words of the Sforno that the Land of Israel is the “Land of G-d” and is not included in “And the land he gave to men.”