TALMUD. The 22nd Massekhet – Bava Metzia

Tractate Bava Metzia (“The Middle Gate”) is actually one section of an ancient Talmudic tractate – Massekhet Nezikin – which deals with issues of civil law, and was eventually divided into three parts (bavot, or “gates”). As is true of the other sections, Massekhet Bava Metzia focuses on one main topic, which divides into a large number of different issues, as is common in Talmudic discussions. The main topic of this tractate involves business interactions between people that are informed by Torah laws that define and limit them. Thus, the discussion does not cover all areas of business and possessions, rather it is limited to those areas where the Torah adds unique commandments or prohibitions beyond the normal laws that apply to business interactions.

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120 Responses to TALMUD. The 22nd Massekhet – Bava Metzia

  1. Bava Metzia 101a-b: Rental terms

    Beginning with the Mishnayot on today’s daf (page), the theme of the perek (chapter) switches to renting houses or apartments.

    The first Mishna lists protections that are offered to tenants to ensure that they will not find themselves homeless. According to the Mishna, there are differences between houses in rural areas and those in the city, and between different times of the year. Thus, in rural areas, if no specific time is agreed upon, a tenant cannot be removed from the house he is renting during the winter (from Sukkot until Pesah) since during that time it is difficult to obtain housing. During the summer, the owner must give the tenant 30 days notice before moving him out. In cities, where there is always a shortage of housing, a full year of notice must be given. These protections are mutual in that the tenant must warn the owner in advance, as well, if he plans to move.

    With regard to commercial property, the Mishna requires that in all circumstances notice must be given 12 months in advance, since the renter must be given time to collect debts, make preparations, and so forth. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel rules that some types of commercial renters – bakers and dyers – must be given notice three years in advance. The Gemara explains that it is because hekefan merubeh. While most commentaries explain this to mean that they extend loans for a longer period of time, the Meiri rejects this approach, arguing that their credit lines do not differ significantly from those of other artisans. The Meiri suggests that this term refers to the specialized structure that these types of workers need for work and storage. Since these are going to be difficult to find, the tenants must be given a longer time in order to arrange to move their businesses into appropriate housing.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  2. Bava Metzia 102a-b: Renting in a leap year

    A leap year according to the Jewish calendar involves the addition of an extra month – a second Adar – in order to reconcile the lunar calendar (which has about 354 days per year) with the solar calendar (which has about 365). This is essential so that the Hebrew months and the Jewish holidays will take place in the proper time of year as the Torah teaches (Devarim 16:1) that the Spring month – Nisan – is when the holiday of Pesah is celebrated.

    Although in modern times there is a set calendar and we add seven such months over a 19 year cycle, in the time of the Mishna leap years were established based on a variety of factors that were not known in advance. Thus, at the beginning of the year people would not know whether to expect a leap year that year or not.

    Our Mishna discusses a rental agreement and teaches that if a house or a field was rented for a year, and that year turned out to be a leap year, the renter benefited by receiving an extra month as part of his year-long agreement. If, however, the agreement was to pay monthly, then the renter would have to pay for the extra month separately. In closing, the Mishna relates that once in Tzippori a bathhouse was rented for a yearly rental of 12 gold pieces, that is, one gold dinar per month, and Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel ruled that the value of the extra month should be split between the owner and the renter.

    The Gemara explains that this ruling stems from the lack of clarity in the agreement, which opened with an agreement about an annual cost, but closed with an agreement about a monthly cost. This explanation notwithstanding, the conclusion of the Gemara is that the owner gets paid for the extra month in question – since the house clearly belongs to him, we will only make him lose if there is a clear proof against him.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  3. Bava Metzia 103a-b: Relying on a rental agreement

    Rava quotes Rav Nahman as teaching that when someone rents a house to another person for ten years, and makes sure to write a contract, if the landlord later claims that the renter has already been in the house for 5 years of the rental period, he is deemed credible.

    Rabbeinu Hananel explains this statement as dealing with a question of payment, and Rava is teaching that there is a written, dated contract stating the agreed-upon price, and there is a dispute as to whether the renter paid his rent.

    This explanation is rejected by most of the commentaries, largely because it does not fit in with the simple reading of the Gemara.

    Rashi suggests that Rava is talking about a case where the written contract has no date in it, and the owner and the renter disagree as to how long the renter has been living in the house. According to this approach, the point of the contract was to act as proof that there was a rental and not a sale, since the written contract effectively publicized what their agreement was. Given that there is no date, Rava teaches that we believe the owner’s claim about when the rental agreement began.

    Jewish law does not recognize “squatters’ rights.” Just because someone lives in a house or works a field for a number of years, he does not have the right to claim the land for his own – if the true owner appears with proof of ownership, the land belongs to him. Nevertheless, if someone has been living in a house or working a field for three years or more, he has a hazaka – circumstantial evidence – that the land belongs to him which will support him should he claim that he purchased the land and someone else argues that he owns it. In our case, the owner wanted to guarantee that it would be clear to all that the land had not been sold, so he wrote the contract.

  4. Bava Metzia 104a-b: An agreement, written or not

    The ninth perek (chapter) of Massekhet Bava Metzia, which is entitled hamekabel sadeh me-havero – “Someone who receives a field from his friend” – began on yesterday’s daf (page) and its focus is the relationship between the owner of a field and the person who commits to working the field.

    Ordinarily, someone who gives a field to his friend does so with the expectation that the recipient of the field will plow, seed and harvest the field, and that they will share the produce based on some agreed-upon formula. The Mishna on today’s daf teaches that if the recipient of the field leaves it barren, the courts will estimate how much the field should have produced, and he will have to pay that amount to the owner. The Mishna explains that this is based on the agreement which states “if I leave the field barren and do not work it, I will pay the full value.”

    One of the questions raised by the commentaries is why the Mishna needs to teach us this rule. Clearly, if a condition like that is agreed upon and is written into an agreement, the parties involved will have to keep it.

    Rabbeinu Hananel explains that the condition written in the agreement is not written appropriately, that is, it does not follow the regulations derived from the negotiations between the tribes of Re’uven and Gad with Moshe that appears in Sefer Bamidbar (chapter 32) – see Kiddushin 61 for details on the rules of tenai b’nai Gad and b’nai Re’uven. Furthermore, there is an element of asmakhta – an assumption made by the recipient that he will never have to pay the penalty, since he is certain that the circumstances will never come to pass, i.e. he is certain that he will work the field. Generally speaking we rule that asmakhta lo kanya – when someone agrees to a condition because he is certain that it will never come to pass, the agreement does not take effect.

    Many commentaries explain otherwise, arguing that the Mishna should not be taken literally, and that this rule applies even if the agreement was not clearly written into the contract, if that was common practice in that community.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  5. Bava Metzia 105a-b: Sowing the fields

    The Mishna on today’s daf (page) discusses the case of a sharecropper who agrees to work the field in exchange for a certain percentage of the harvest, and finds that the field does not produce enough to make it worth his while. According to the Tanna Kamma (first), if it will produce enough to make a keri – a pile of grain – he is obligated to work the field. Rabbi Yehuda rules that if it will produce the amount of grain that he used for seed, he will have to work the field.

    In offering a practical definition for Rabbi Yehuda’s ruling, Rabbi Ami quoted Rabbi Yohanan as teaching that for a field to yield a kor (a measure of volume equivalent to 30 se’a), four se’a was needed for planting; Rabbi Ami himself said that for a field that size eight se’a was needed. An elderly man explained this discrepancy to Rav Hama son of Rabba bar Avuh by telling him that during Rabbi Yohanan’s time the land of Israel was fertile, but during Rabbi Ami’s time it had become barren.

    There is much evidence in the Gemara – particularly in the Talmud Yerushalmi – that the fertility of the land of Israel dropped precipitously during the period of the amora’im. We find that even during Rabbi Yohanan’s time – in the first generation of amora’im – he mentions a change in the land’s produce. This stemmed, apparently, from a worsening of economic conditions in the Jewish community in Israel, which led to improper use and maintenance of agricultural land at that time. This led to overfarming the land, whose consequence was a drop in its ability to support crops.

    The Gemara also mentions two different methods of farming – mapolet yad (hand seeding) and mapolet shevarim (seeding with oxen). Mapolet shevarim made use of a mechanism that held seeds and was attached to the plow so that the seeds were distributed directly as the plowing was done. While this method saved time and effort, a much larger amount of seeds was needed in order to reach the same level of produce as planting with the mapolet yad method.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  6. Bava Metzia 106a-b: Planting a new crop

    Can someone who rents a field decide to plant something other than what was agreed upon?

    According to the last Mishna on today’s daf (page), if the agreement was to plant barley he cannot plant wheat, but if the agreement was to plant wheat, he would be allowed to plant barley. Similarly, if the agreement was to plant grain, he cannot plant legumes (kitnit), but if they had agreed that he would plant kitnit, he can choose to plant grain. In both of these cases Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel disagrees, ruling that no change can be made.

    The Tanna Kamma’s (first) reasoning is that certain crops weaken the ground more than others. Since the individual who is planting is only renting the field, he cannot sow a crop that will weaken it more than what they had agreed upon. If, however, he wants to sow a crop that will do less damage to the ground, he would be permitted to do so.

    Although there are some manuscripts that have the Tanna Kamma permitting the planting of grain instead of the agreed-upon legumes, the reading that appears above would not seem to be the correct one, since kitniyot – leguminae – are well known as adding to the well-being of the soil. The root of leguminae has bacteria that allow them to extract nitrogen from the air, making it more fertile.

    The Gemara explains Rabban Shimon ben Gamli’el’s position as being based on the passage in Zephaniah (3:13) forbidding people from being deceptive under any circumstances, even if in the end something positive will come out of it. Another explanation raised in the Gemara is that the owner of the field may have a specific reason why he wants a certain crop to be planted. According to Rashi, he may want the field to grow the same crop every year. Tosafot suggest that the owner may want to rotate his crops, in order to be sure that the soil retains different types of nutrients.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  7. Bava Metzia 107a-b: The most important meal of the day

    Your mother always told you not to skip breakfast. What do the Rabbinic Sages have to say on the matter?

    Our Gemara quotes Rava as asking Rabba bar Mari for the source for the Rabbinic dictum that you should make sure to eat early in the morning – in the summer because of the heat and in the winter because of the cold. Furthermore the Rabbis taught that sixty men cannot catch the individual who made sure to eat in the morning.

    Rabba bar Mari responded with a passage from Sefer Yeshayahu (49:10) which indicates that eating in the morning will protect a person from heat and cold. Rava suggested a pasuk (verse) from the Torah. The passage in Sefer Shemot (23:25) teaches:
    1.va-avadetem et ha-Shem Elokekhem – that first one must serve God – understood by Rava as morning prayers, then
    2.u-berakh et lahmekhah ve-et me-mekhah- your bread and water are blessed, and finally
    3.va-hasiroti mahala mi-kirbekhah – illnesses are removed from you.

    This approach matches current medical thinking that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. After hours of sleep, during which time a person does not eat or enjoy any sustenance, the body needs a certain amount of liquid and nutrition in order to meet the individual’s immediate needs. Although healthy people have stored energy reserves in their bodies that allow a person to function even without a morning meal, nevertheless, a regular breakfast allows for normal activity throughout the day.

    The passage quoted by Rava teaches that mahala is removed. The Gemara identifies mahala specifically with marah – diseases of the gall bladder. While this organ certainly can become diseased, it is odd to find an emphasis on these diseases specifically. While the Gemara may be referring to the gall bladder as representative of digestive diseases generally, some suggest that this is a reference to the basic belief of Greek medicine (one that was popular until recent times) that the body was composed of four humours – arba marot – and that a lack of balance between these humours could lead to both physical and spiritual diseases.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  8. Bava Metzia 108a-b: A good neighbor

    Is there a mitzva to be a “good person”?

    One of the general commandments in the Torah is Ve-asitah ha-yashar ve-ha-tov lifnei haShem – that you should do what is right and good before God (Devarim 6:18). This mitzva is understood by the Sages as requiring the Jewish people to behave appropriately towards others even when there is no specific monetary obligation to do so. One example is the rule of bar mitzrah – a neighbor. Someone who owns an adjoining field has the first rights to purchase it in the event that his neighbor decides to sell it. Since there are obvious advantages to owning two fields that are right next to each other, the Sages established a number of enactments that give the neighbor preferential treatment when the field is being sold.

    The Gemara also enumerates a number of cases where the laws of bar mitzrah do not apply. Thus, someone who sells all of his possessions to a single individual will not have to offer first rights of refusal to his neighbor. (Some say that this is because he may be allowed the convenience of selling everything at once, and not having to worry about multiple contracts and receipts. According to the Rambam this is because someone who sells all of his possessions must be forced to do it because of pressing family or financial reasons, and we will not force him to begin negotiations with the neighbor.) Similarly someone who sells back to the previous owner – i.e. the person he bought it from – does not have to offer it to the neighbor, or if he gave the field as a present to someone, he does not have to offer it to the neighbor.

    A notable exception is someone who purchases a field from a non-Jew, who can tell the neighbor that he should be thanked for “chasing away a lion,” i.e. that he should be happy to have a Jewish neighbor (who will work out disagreements through the Jewish courts, etc.) rather than a non-Jewish one. The Rosh challenges this Gemara by asking why this is such a good argument – shouldn’t the purchaser still be obligated to offer the field to the neighbor based on the commandment ve-asitah ha-yashar ve-ha-tov? This leads the Rosh to conclude that only the seller is obligated in the laws of bar mitzrah. The purchaser has no responsibility at all to make sure that the neighbors are pleased with the sale.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  9. Bava Metzia 109a-b: You’re fired!

    How much notice must be given to a worker who is going to be fired?

    Our Gemara tells the story of a man named Runya who worked for Ravina planting for him. Ravina found that his work was poor and that he was losing money, so he fired him. When Runya complained to Rava that he had been fired without warning, Rava responded that there was no need to warn him before letting him go.

    The Gemara explains that this is not true in all cases, rather that according to Rava there are certain professions whose workers are considered mutrin ve-omdin – that they are always “on notice” since the damage that they do cannot be undone. The list of professions includes:
    •Makrei dardekei – elementary school teachers
    •Shatala – people who plant others’ fields
    •Tabaha – slaughterers
    •Umana – people who “let blood”
    •Safar mata – the city scribe.

    Rashi explains that makrei dardekei are a problem because of the mistakes that the children cannot unlearn. . The Ri”f suggests that this is talking about a teacher who is violent towards the students or who cannot control them. Tosafot suggest that the irreplaceable loss is the loss of time that the children could have been learning.

    With regard to the tabaha, the Ra’avad asks why his mistake should be considered a loss, since he would be required to pay for mistakes that he made. The Ra’avad suggests that there are cases where the damage is permanent, e.g. when the customer needed meat for a guest or for his own meal and has no other options.

    Although we translated safar mata as a scribe, some suggest that it should be read sapar mata – the city barber, and that the reference is to someone who gives haircuts that leave the recipients publicly embarrassed.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  10. Bava Metzia 110a-b: Pay day

    Paying a worker on time is a biblical commandment. In two places the Torah commands that a daily worker must be paid promptly –
    1.Vayikra 19:13 lo talin pe’ulat sakhir itkhah ad boker – “do not retain the wages of a hired worker until the morning,” and
    2.Devarim 24:15 be-yomo ti-ten sekharo, ve-lo yavo alav ha-shemesh – “on that day give him his wages; the sun should not set on it.”

    The Mishna on our daf (page) understands that the passage in Vayikra teaches the law of a day worker, who must be paid by sometime during the night following the completion of his work, while the law regarding a night worker, who finishes his work by morning, requires payment by the end of the day, based on the pasuk (verse) in Sefer Devarim. Someone who is paid according to the hours that he works must be paid the same day (or the same night) that he does his work. The principle presented by the Gemara is that sekhirut einah mishtalemet ela ba-sof – workers get paid only upon completion of their work – so once the worker has completed the agreed-upon time or project, the person who hired him has a reasonable amount of time to pay him his wages.

    The Gemara quotes a baraita that teaches that if wages are not paid on time, the employer has transgressed both positive and negative commandments. Nevertheless, there are no further biblical prohibitions forbidding holding back wages beyond the first day or the first night. Rav teaches that there is a rabbinic prohibition that he calls bal tash’he – don’t “hold back” wages. Support for this idea comes from a passage in Mishlei (3:28) quoted by Rav Yosef, which teaches that a person should not tell his friend that he should “come back tomorrow” to receive payment that is due him.

  11. Bava Metzia 111a-b: Paying on time

    The Mishna on today’s daf (page) continues teaching laws about the biblical requirement to pay a worker on time. According to the Mishna, this rule applies not only to cases of an employee, but also to situations where a person has rented an animal or an object; the renter must offer payment on time – assuming that the person who was to get paid requested payment. If he did not ask to get paid, the employer (or the renter) has not violated the law.

    The passage upon which this law is based (Devarim 24:14) delineates who is included in the obligation. The Torah mentions specifically me-ahekha (from your brothers) o mi-gerkha (or from a convert) asher be-artzekha (who is in your land). This is understood to require prompt payment not only to a Jewish worker, but also to a ger tzedek (a righteous convert to Judaism) and a ger toshav (someone who lives in Israel without accepting the commandments).

    There are two types of people who are referred to by the Torah as a ger – a convert – and it is not always easy to ascertain which the Torah is talking about in a given situation. The first type is a ger tzedek, who is someone who has accepted the commandments and has undergone a process of ritual immersion in a mikvah and, for a man, circumcision. Such a ger is considered a Jew like any other, with some technical exceptions. The second type is a ger toshav, who is a non-Jew who is permitted to live in Israel since he is not in the category of an idol worshipper.

    The precise definition of a ger toshav is subject to disagreement among the tanna’im. Some say that it is sufficient for the individual to reject idol worship, while others say that he must accept all of the commandments with the exception of eating non-kosher. The accepted approach is that someone is considered to be a ger toshav if he accepts upon himself sheva mitzvot bnei Noah – the seven Noachide laws. Once he has accepted these laws, he is considered part of the community in that Jews must concern themselves with his well-being, including, as we have seen, prompt payment of his salary.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  12. Bava Metzia 112a-b: A contractor’s wages

    As we have learned, paying a worker on time is a biblical commandment. In two places the Torah commands that a daily worker must be paid promptly –
    1.Vayikra 19:13 lo talin pe’ulat sakhir itkhah ad boker – “do not retain the wages of a hired worker until the morning,” and
    2.Devarim 24:15 be-yomo ti-ten sekharo, ve-lo yavo alav ha-shemesh – “on that day give him his wages; the sun should not set on it.”

    It appears that both situations described by the Torah are cases of a wage earner – someone who gets paid by the day or by the hour. What would the halakha be for a kablan – a contactor who gets paid when he completes the job? Would the laws of lo talin and be-yomo ti-ten sekharo apply also to a contractor who finishes the job? This question was presented to Rav Sheshet, who ruled that the same laws would apply.

    The Gemara posits that the underlying question at hand is whether or not uman koneh be-shevah keli – does the artisan take possession of the object through his work. If we believe that uman koneh be-shevah keli, then the object becomes his when he begins working on it, and we view him as extending a loan to the true owner. When he returns the object, he is owed money – the value of the work that was done – which we view as money amount that he had lent to the owner. The laws of timely payment do not apply to loans, so they do not apply in this case. If, however, we reject the idea of uman koneh be-shevah keli, then the payment that he is to receive are simply his wages, where the laws of lo talin and be-yomo ti-ten sekharo do apply.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  13. Bava Metzia 113a-b: The rules of collateral

    Our Mishna discusses the practice of taking a mashkon – collateral, an object that serves as a guarantee – on a loan. The Torah teaches (Devarim 24:10-13) that a lender cannot enter the borrower’s house to take a mashkon, rather he must wait outside for the borrower to bring it out to him. Furthermore, if the borrower is poor and the object is one that he needs, the lender must return it to him when he needs it. The Mishna specifies that if the guarantee is a pillow, it must be returned at night; if it is a plow it must be returned during the working day.

    It appears that there are several different kinds of “loan guarantees.” When the two parties agree to a mashkon at the time of the loan, none of these rules apply, and it need not be returned until the loan has been paid. Another type of “guarantee” occurs when the time for payment has passed and the lender takes something that belongs to the borrower as payment – or to pressure the borrower to pay. According to Rabbeinu Tam and the Ra’avad, in this case, as well, the mashkon need not be returned until the loan is paid. Our Mishna is discussing a different case – when the mashkon is taken at some point during the period of the loan to act as a “reminder” that the loan will come due and will have to be paid. In such a case, as the Mishna teaches, the mashkon can only be taken under the supervision of the beit din – the Jewish court – and it will have to be returned to the borrower when needed.

    Both the amora’im and the rishonim present the obvious question. What point is there is having a “guarantee” of a loan if it must be returned whenever the borrower needs it? The Gemara points out that there are certain advantages to holding such a mashkon, e.g. should the Sabbatical year – which ordinarily erases such debt – occur, holding a mashkon would ensure that the loan remains in force and collectible. Furthermore, if the borrower dies, the holder of such a mashkon would not have to return it to the borrower’s children. Tosafot quote Rabbeinu Elhanan as offering another reason, as well. He suggests that the bother of retrieving and returning the mashkon on a regular basis would act to encourage the borrower to repay the loan as soon as it comes due.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  14. Bava Metzia 114a-b: Standing in a graveyard

    The Gemara on today’s daf (page) continues the discussion of a lender taking a mashkon – collateral or a guarantee – from a borrower, and asks whether there is an obligation to leave the debtor with enough property for him to continue living his life normally. Although the Gemara brings ordinary discussion and proofs in answer to this question, it also includes an interesting conversation between Rabba bar Avuh and Eliyahu.

    The Gemara tells of Rabba bar Avuh meeting Elijah the Prophet in a non-Jewish cemetery. Seizing the opportunity he asked him a number of questions:

    “Must a borrower be left with enough for him to continue living normally?”

    Eliyahu replied that he must, citing a parallel between the laws of mashkon and the laws of arakhin (when someone declares that he will give his worth to the Temple).

    “What is the source for the law forbidding someone who is naked from tithing?”

    Eliyahu replied that the source could be found in Sefer Devarim (23:15).

    Finally, Rabba bar Avuh asked how Eliyahu could be in a cemetery, since he is a kohen for whom entrance into a cemetery should be forbidden. Eliyahu responded that based on a passage in Sefer Yehezkel (34:31) we learn that non-Jews are not metame be-ohel – their dead will not ritually defile a person when found in the same dwelling or overhang (this is separate from the question of physical contact with a dead body, where the body of a non-Jew would be forbidden for a kohen to touch).

    The idea of Elijah the Prophet appearing to the righteous is one that we find often in the Talmud, and, in fact, in post-Talmudic literature, as well. It is clear from the story in our Gemara that Eliyahu does not come to offer prophetic solutions to problems in Jewish law – since halakha cannot be decided based on prophecy – rather he makes use of the ordinary tools of the halakhic decisor. The rishonim point out that his statements in the Gemara are accepted like those of any other Sage, and can be accepted or disputed.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  15. Bava Metzia 115a-b: Forbidden collateral

    The Mishnayot on today’s daf (page) present cases where it is forbidden to take a mashkon – an object that will serve to guarantee payment of a loan.

    The first case is a situation where someone lends money to a widow. The Mishna teaches that no mashkon can be taken from a widow – whether she is rich or poor – based on the pasuk, or verse (Devarim 24:17) that forbids taking a widow’s clothing as a guarantee. While some of the commentaries explain the basis for this rule based on the sympathy and sensitivity that the Torah shows towards an unfortunate woman, the Rambam suggests (based on the Gemara’s explanation) that the interaction that will be caused by the need for the lender and borrower to interact because of the mashkon will lead to rumors about these two people. If this is the underlying reason for the law, it stands to reason that the halakha will apply not only to widows, but to any single woman who acts on her own regarding business transactions.

    The second case where taking a mashkon is forbidden is when the guarantee would be a millstone or some other implement or utensil that is needed for preparing food at home. The basis for this is also a clear passage in Sefer Devarim (24:6), which is understood to forbid the taking of a mill or anything similar.

    The Mishna is referring to a small hand mill that was used in homes.

    Hand mills were made with a hole in the top where the grain could be inserted and another on one side where a stick could be placed, allowing the grindstone to be turned. These were often used at home and turned by women who were responsible for running the kitchen. When there was a need for a large amount of flour, or when flour was produced commercially, larger mills were used, whose stones were turned by water power or by animals. Such mills could, in emergencies, be turned by people as well (see, for example, Shoftim 16:21). Nevertheless, it would be most unlikely for such difficult, manual labor to be the responsibility of the woman of the home.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  16. Bava Metzia 116a-b: When the house collapses

    The tenth and final perek (chapter) of Massekhet Bava Metzia, Ha-bayit ve-ha’aliya, focuses on one specific situation – when a two story house that is owned by more than one person collapses, either completely or in part. How are the bricks to be divided up? What if the person who owned the bottom floor does not want to rebuild, but his upstairs neighbor does?

    Two Mishnayot appear on today’s daf (page). In the first Mishna, the case that is presented has a two story building that collapses, and the Mishna rules that the two partners divide up the rocks, bricks, etc. equally between them. If one of the partners recognizes that certain bricks came from his part of the house, he can claim them as his own, but his partner will get an equal amount, even though he is not sure which bricks belong to him.

    Early manuscripts of Rashi appear to indicate that the two partners will divide the materials equally, even if one floor was larger or taller than the other. Since we cannot tell which bricks belonged to the bottom floor and which to the top floor, we cannot identify some as belonging to one partner and some to the other. Our only choice is to divide the materials equally. The Ramban quotes the Tosefta and Talmud Yerushalmi as ruling otherwise. According to this approach, the materials are divided between the partners, but it is divided fairly, according to the size of the floor that each one of them owns.

    The second Mishna in the perek discusses a case where only the top floor collapsed. According to the Mishna, if the owner refuses to pay to have the top floor fixed, the tenant on the top floor has the right to move in with the owner of the bottom floor until such time as the top floor is fixed. As is clear from the Mishna and the Gemara, the case discussed here is one where one person owns the entire house and the second floor is rented to someone else. Only in such a case would the owner be obligated to fix the roof apartment, and only in such a case would people upstairs be allowed to force the owner to do so.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  17. Bava Metzia 117a-b: Land Rights

    What land rights, if any, does the owner of the top floor of a house have?

    The Mishna on today’s daf (page) discusses a two story house that collapses. Previous Mishnayot discussed how the bricks should be divided between the owners, and how to deal with a case where only the top floor fell down. In the case presented in our Mishna, the owner of the bottom floor is not interested in building and we find a discussion about what the owner of the top floor can do to retain his rights. Since he cannot build in the air, he can build a ground floor, and according to the Tanna Kamma (first), he can live in it until the owner pays him his expenses so that he can complete his own apartment.

    The Gemara brings a baraita that describes a case where after the building collapse, neither of the two owners has the money to rebuild, and the individual who owns the land (the owner of the lower story) wants to sell the property. How much does each owner receive?

    Rabbi Natan rules that the owner of the bottom floor receives two-thirds of the value, while the owner of the top floor receives one-third. Others suggest that they should split it differently, with the owner of the bottom floor receiving three-quarters and the owner of the top floor receiving one-quarter.

    Rashi explains that the question stems from the fact that the owner of the land may want to claim that the owner of the top floor has no rights at all, since his apartment is hanging in the air and he has no claim in the land itself. The Gemara’s conclusion, which accepts Rabbi Natan’s ruling because a second floor lowers the value of the bottom floor by one-third, is understood by Rav Amram Gaon to mean that a second floor reduces the life of a house by one-third.

  18. Bava Metzia 118a-b: Cash vs. items of value

    When someone owes money to another person, how must he pay him? Must he pay in currency that can be easily spent, or can he give him other items of value to pay off the debt?

    The Mishna on our daf (page) tells of a worker who was hired to gather straw. Upon completing his work and asking to be paid, his employer tells him to take the straw that he gathered and keep it as his wages. According to the Mishna, the worker does not have to accept the straw instead of the agreed-upon wages. If he does agree to accept the straw, however, the employer cannot change his mind later on and say that he wants the straw and will pay him his salary.

    This halakha stands, even though the general rule is that shaveh kesef ke-kesef – that objects of value are viewed as money – since the pasuk (verse) that requires prompt payment (Vayikra 19:13) is understood to obligate an employer to pay his worker according to their agreement.

    The rishonim establish three different types of situations of payment where objects of value may be used instead of actual cash payments –

    1. ba’al hov – a borrower must pay back a loan in cash, unless he does not have any money with which to pay. If he has no money then he must pay back what he has available. If it is land, he pays beinonit – middle quality land.

    2. nezikin – damages, where the person who caused the damage can pay with whatever he has, but if he pays with land, he will pay idit – the best quality land

    3. sakhir – a hired worker, who must be paid in cash, and the employer is obligated to find money for him, even if he does not have it readily available.

    The Ran explains the rule of sakhir as being based on the assumption that a worker needs the money for day-to-day living expenses, and he does not anticipate having to go to the trouble of selling what he receives in order to support himself.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  19. Bava Metzia 119a: Whatever his hand can reach

    The Mishna on yesterday’s daf (page – 118b) discusses a situation where two fields were terraced so that one was situated above the other, with vegetation growing out of the side of the terrace. The Mishna records a disagreement between Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehuda, with Rabbi Shimon suggesting a compromise position. According to Rabbi Shimon, all fruit that can be reached by the owner of the top field will belong to him; the rest belongs to the owner of the bottom field.

    The Gemara on our daf reports that Efrayim Safra, one of Reish Lakish’s students, quoted Reish Lakish as accepting Rabbi Shimon’s position. When this was shared with Shavor Malka, he praised the good sense of Rabbi Shimon’s ruling.

    Shavor Malka – Shapur – was the name of a number of Persian kings. According to Rashi and other rishonim, our Gemara is referring to the first king Shapur, who continued his father’s success in wars against the Roman Empire, capturing the city of Netzivim and arriving at the border of Syria. In the course of a number of attacks, he not only defeated the Roman emperor Velrinus, but he captured him and held him until his death. With regard to internal matters, he was an open-minded leader, and allowed a good deal of freedom of religion. It appears that he showed an interest in Judaism and was on good terms with the amora Shmuel.

    Although we find a number of places in the Talmud where Shmuel is referred to by the nickname Shavor Malka, Rashi rejects the possibility that this is the case here, since it is obvious that Shmuel would have known the Mishna and would have been familiar with Rabbi Shimon’s ruling. Therefore it does not make sense to suggest that he praised Rabbi Shimon after hearing Efrayim Safra quoting Reish Lakish’s ruling.

    In his Ye’arot Devash, Rabbi Yonatan Eibeschutz discusses how this teaching could have been shared with Shavor Malka, given the tradition that forbids teaching Torah to non-Jews. He explains that among the Noachide laws that non-Jews are obligated to follow are monetary laws. Thus it is appropriate to teach Noachides property law as interpreted by the Sages.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

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