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Rent Control

“One may increase rent, but one may not similarly increase the price of a sale. How so? If a courtyard owner rented his courtyard to a renter, and the owner said to the renter: If you give me the payment now, the rental is yours for ten sela a year, but if you pay on a monthly basis it will cost a sela for each month,鈥 (Bava Metzia 65a)

The Mishnah here provides an example of a principle that we are all familiar with 鈥 if you pay everything up front, rather than in installments, you will often get a discount. Assuming that the buyer has ready cash, this is a win-win situation for everyone 鈥 the seller gets his money now, rather than having to wait and the buyer gets a deal. But what if paying up front was the only option and there was no early-bird discount? This was the situation for the Jews in the overcrowded city of Jerusalem in the 19th century.

As more and more people made their way to Jerusalem in the 19th聽century, the Jewish Quarter, the smallest of the four, became severely overcrowded. The Jewish population grew from two thousand people in 1800 to eleven thousand in 1870 and almost everyone lived in the city within the walls. The living conditions were not helped by the fact that the Ottoman Turks criminally neglected the city. Sewage flowed in open drains in the streets, garbage was collected once a year and drinking water was hard to come by unless you had a cistern on your roof or in your courtyard and it had been a rainy year.

Housing was particularly complicated. Most property in Jerusalem was not owned by Jews, either by individuals or by the community. It was either owned by private owners, usually Muslim Arabs, or was the property of the Waqf, the Muslim religious authority. Waqf property could not be sold, only rented. There was little supply and much demand.

As a result, Jewish residents of Jerusalem were at the mercy of the Arab landlords. These property owners understood the desperate need for a place to live and they would insist on the full year鈥檚 rent at the start of the rental year, which was Passover. Naturally there were no discounts like our Mishnah talks about. The misery was compounded by the fact that many Jews in the Old City, particularly the Ashkenazim, were desperately poor and lived off the haluka, the charity money provided by Diaspora communities. This stipend arrived once a year, for Rosh HaShanah, and much of it was used up by Passover. In order to pay the rent money, people had to get an advance from the Jewish community funds, leaving little left for any other needs.

Reconstruction of a Jewish Quarter courtyard in the Old Yishuv Court Museum

Heritage Conservation聽聽 Jerusalem聽 Pikiwiki Israel, CC BY 2.5 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

An additional problem was that the landlords would use the competition to their advantage, renting the property to the highest bidder. In this situation, the Jewish courts were able to find a solution. They used a halachic idea called hazaka (stay tuned for this in Bava Batra) where the resident of an apartment for a significant period of time is considered its de facto owner. A Jewish renter who had hazaka rights (determined by the Bet Din) could then sublet the apartment to other Jews, at a fixed rate of profit. Jews who tried to circumvent this system and go directly to the Arab owner would be called before the court and punished. This stopped the worst of the price gouging, although it did not provide more housing opportunities.

The situation was reaching crisis proportions as more and more Jews came to Jerusalem. It was not uncommon for families to share a single room apartment. The first attempt to solve the problem was to build better housing inside the walls. A member of the wealthy Jewish Rothschild family, along with the communities of Hungary, Holland and Germany, bankrolled the Batei Mahseh compound on the edge of the Jewish Quarter, The Rothschild family crest of a red shield (rot=red) with five arrows on it is prominently displayed on the main building in the square.

Batei Mahseh, Rothschild crest in red square

Nehemia Gershuni-Aylho, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

New neighborhoods also opened up in different parts of the Old City. Jews moved into the area of the Muslim Quarter close to the Jewish Quarter and they also settled in Bab Huta, not far from Lion鈥檚 Gate in the north of the city. But these attempts did not provide enough space for the many Jews seeking housing, and with the Arab riots in 1929 Jews abandoned their properties in the Muslim Quarter.

The revolutionary who realized that neighborhoods needed to be built outside the walls of the Old City was Sir Moses Montefiore (1784 鈥 1885). Montefiore was an Italian Jew who moved to England as a young man and made a vast fortune, vast enough that his estate was next door to young Princess, eventually Queen, Victoria. By the time he was in his forties Montefiore could retire from business and he spent the next sixty years of his long life traveling the world and helping Jewish communities. Often his wife Judith was by his side.

Montefiore had a special love for Jerusalem. He visited seven times, no mean feat in the days before airplanes, and he always had ideas for ways to improve the lives of the Jews here: a hospital, a railroad, etc. Invariably, these ideas were shot down by Jerusalem鈥檚 squabbling and contentious communities. But one idea worked. Montefiore bought land outside the walls, across the Hinnom Valley from Zion Gate, and built a model neighborhood. It included walls for security (a major concern), luxurious two-room apartments and a way to make a living 鈥 a windmill to grind wheat into flour.

Montefiore offered his homes to the Jewish community. He named the neighborhood Mishkenot Shaananim, peaceful dwellings, as if to reassure those worried about bandits and wild animals outside the security of the walls. To sweeten the deal, he offered the homes rent-free and with a stipend. Who signed up? Practically nobody. The fear of leaving the walls was real. Some clever fellows signed up and then snuck back into the Old City before nightfall to sleep there.

The restored windmill in Mishkenot Shaananim

Ralf Roletschek (GFDL 1.2 <> or FAL), via Wikimedia Commons

Mishkenot Shaananim might have fallen into the realm of legend if not for one thing: a terrible cholera epidemic that hit Jerusalem in 1865. The plague, carried by contact and dirty water, spread rapidly through the Old City. Among the few not affected were the brave souls who had moved outside the wallsJews began to accept the idea of moving out of the Old City to a cleaner, more open area. After Mishkenot Shaananim, more and more neighborhoods were established and soon the Jewish population of the New City dwarfed that of the Old. Montefiore had succeeded.

Although the greedy rent gouging landlords certainly did not intend this result, it is partly because of them that Jerusalem grew into the expansive and beautiful city it is today.

View of Supreme Court and Knesset

israeltourism, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Shulie Mishkin

Shulie Mishkin made Aliyah from New York with a Master's degree in Jewish History from Columbia University. After completing the Ministry of Tourism guide course in 1997, she began guiding professionally and has since taught and guided all ages, from toddlers to retirees. Her tours provide a complete picture of the land of Israel and Jewish heritage, with a strong reliance on sources ranging from the Bible to 19th century travelers' reports. Alongside her regular guide work, she teaches "tour and text" courses in the Jerusalem institutions of Pardes and Matan as wel as the Women's Bet Midrash in Efrat and provides tours for special needs students in the 鈥淒arkaynu鈥 program. Shulie lives in Alon Shvut with her husband Jonathan and their five kids. Shulie Mishkin is now doing virtual tours online. Check out the options at
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