Anyone who has rented a house or apartment has likely been faced with a seemingly inscrutable contract that, upon examination of the fine print, turns out to contain all sorts of unexpected stipulations. One thing that’s typically not difficult, though, is determining the period of a lease. A one-year rental is for 12 months, right?
Not necessarily, it turns out — at least not in talmudic times — setting up a fascinating discussion on today’s daf. Let’s dive in.
The sages taught a beraita: On the first of Nisan is the New Year for counting the months of the year, and for leap years, and for collection of the shekels (that had been collected in Adar and used to purchase animals for communal offerings and other needs of the Temple); and some say that it is also the New Year for the renting of houses.
Wait, what? Does this mean that no matter when someone rents a house, the year is up on the first of Nisan? Let’s keep reading.
If one rents out a house to another person for a year, he counts twelve months from day to day. But if he said (that he was renting it) for this year, then even if the agreement was made only on the first of Adar, once the first of Nisan arrived one month later, it is counted as a year.
Our first indication from this passage is that the difference is one of semantics. If the rental agreement is l’shana (for a year), it is understood to be for a 12-month period. If the rental agreement is l’shana zo (for this year), it concludes on the first of Nisan, no matter when it starts.
The Gemara then goes on to note an exception to the rule:
Even according to the one who said that one day in a year is considered a year, it is different here, with regard to rental halakhot, as a person does not take the trouble to rent a house for less than thirty days. Therefore, if one rented a house after the first of Adar, the remaining days of Adar are not considered a full year.
In the talmudic period, the assumption was that someone renting a house intended to live in it for at least one month. The Gemara therefore rules that if a rental agreement “for this year” begins any time after the second day of Adar — that is, less than than one month before the start of Nisan, the month that follows Adar — the tenant clearly didn’t intend to rent the property for less than one month and the term of the rental is understood to be nearly 13 months, until the following Nisan.
By now, having studied the first seven pages of Tractate Rosh Hashanah and its far-reaching discussion of our inaugural mishnah about the four new years, you may have a logical question: Why would we designate the first of Nisan rather than the first of Tishrei as the new year for rental properties? The Gemara asks this question too, and provides an answer:
A person who rents a house without specification intends to rent it for all of the rainy season, until Nisan, when the rainy season comes to a close.
The Gemara concludes that people rent houses to protect themselves from foul weather. An interesting comment in the Artscroll translation of this tractate sheds light on why the Gemara makes this assumption. Paraphrasing the Sefat Emet, the 19th-century Polish commentator Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter, it notes: “Unlike the New Years discussed previously, the New Year for house rentals is based on custom and is Rabbinic in nature.”
In other words, these rulings may have been appropriate for the time in which the text was written, or in places where the rainy season ends in the spring. But landlord-tenant law changes over time and customs differ from place to place. One thing that hasn’t changed over the centuries? The wisdom of reading the fine print of rental agreements (and other contracts). Skip it at your own peril, or you might find yourself out in the rain.
Read all of Rosh Hashanah 7 on Sefaria.