Masechet Bava Batra 21a-27b

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10 Sep 2009

The Coming Week’s Daf Yomi by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim (original ideas) of Talmudic scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, as published in the Hebrew version of the Steinsaltz Edition of the Talmud.

Bava Batra 21a-b

Today we take universal primary school education for granted. The Gemara on today’s daf offers the source for public Jewish education.

In the Mishnah (20b) we learn that no one in a courtyard can complain if one of the people living there opens a school for children, even if the children are noisy. The Gemara on our daf explains that this is talking about the time period that followed Yehoshua ben Gamla’s innovation. In presenting his enactment, the Gemara opens with a brief review of the history of Jewish education.

According to the Gemara, it was common practice for fathers to personally teach their children, based on the passage in Sefer Devarim (11:19) that was understood to mean that the main obligation rested with the father. This created a situation where children without fathers did not learn. Recognizing this problem, public schools were opened in Jerusalem, as the prophet Yeshayahu states (2:3) – ki mi-Tzion teitzei Torah – “for Torah will come from Zion.” Even so, only children with concerned parents were taken to these schools; other children still did not learn. A further advance was the institution of public schools in major population centers, but since it meant travel and living away from home, the children usually came in their late teens, with no formal preparation beforehand. Given their advanced age, youngsters who did not get along with their teachers simply left school.

Finally Yehoshua ben Gamla established a system of elementary schools in every community, where children began studying at age six or seven.

Yehoshua ben Gamla is most likely one of the last kohanim gedolim of the second Temple period, who is mentioned in Josephus as Yehoshua ben Gamliel. If this identification is correct, he was appointed to this position by King Agrippas II.

Yehoshua ben Gamla is praised by the Sages for a number of things, among them donating golden plates for the Yom Kippur lottery, but chiefly for instituting a formal elementary school system in every city in Israel. This led the sages to say about him, “were it not for him, the Torah would have been totally forgotten.”

Bava Batra 22a-b

The Mishnayot on today’s daf continue with discussions of situations where a person is limited in performing an activity or building something on his own property if it may cause damage to his neighbor. The second Mishnah teaches of two specific cases where an owner is required to restrict his own activities because of such concerns:

  1. If someone’s neighbor has a dovecote at the edge of his property, his neighbor cannot place a ladder within four amot (cubits) of the dovecote, lest a nemiyah use the ladder to access the dovecote, and
  2. If someone’s neighbor has a mazheilah – a leader-gutter arrangement for collecting water – he cannot build a wall within four amot (cubits) of the mazheilah, which would limit the owner’s ability to access it and keep it clean.

A nemiyah is a mongoose – herpestes ichunemon – a small carnivorous animal. A mongoose eats almost anything, but its main source of sustenance is small animals that it tracks and kills. When a mongoose gains access to a coop or dovecote it would not only kill birds to eat, but would kill many others, as well. Its slender, supple body allows it to climb easily and to jump long distances, making it dangerous to leave a ladder close to a dovecote when such animals are around.

With regard to the mazheilah, the question raised by the commentaries is why it is fair that the owner of the mazheilah can force his neighbor to leave an area of his own field unused to accommodate the needs of the mazheilah‘s owner. Tosafot say that we must be discussing a case where the owner of the mazheilah either purchased or received this concession and the Mishnah is simply discussing the amount of space that the agreement guarantees.  The Ramban suggests that we are discussing a case where two brothers received the field as an inheritance and divided it between them, so each must allow full usage of what the other received in the agreement.

Bava Batra 23a-b

One enigmatic halacha that appears in the Torah is the law of eglah arufah – the broken-necked heifer (Devarim 21:1-9). The Torah teaches that when a body is found between two cities and we cannot determine who is responsible for the person’s murder, representatives of the city that is closest come and declare that they played no direct role in the murder, closing the ceremony by breaking the neck of a calf.

Our Gemara discusses this ceremony as a segue from the discussion of the law that is mentioned in the Mishnah that discusses how we determine who is the owner of a chick that is found between two dovecotes. This discussion is, itself, a segue from the previous Mishnah whose focus was placement of a dovecote near a city or near his neighbor’s property.

Although the pasuk says that the elders of the city that is closest are the ones who come to participate in the eglah arufah ceremony, Rabbi Chanina declares that the general principle when dealing with unknown ownership (or responsibility) is that rov ve-karov, holchim ahar ha-rov – that when the choice is between the majority and what is closest, we follow the majority. He argues that in the case of eglah arufah we would only invite the elders of the closest city to participate in the ceremony if the closest city was also the city with the largest population (the rov in this case).

What if we are faced with a choice of choosing between the closest city which is smaller or the larger city which is further? The Ri”d suggests that we cannot hold the ceremony at all, since neither one fulfils the requirement. The Rambam, however, rules that we would have the elders of the larger city do the ceremony (Hilkhot Rotze’ach u’shemirat HaNefesh 9:6).

Bava Batra 24a-b

What type of aesthetic city planning is recommended by the Torah?

The Mishnah on today’s daf discusses cases where a person is limited in the kinds of building that he can do on his property if it may disturb the needs of the larger community. For example, the Mishnah forbids erecting a permanent granary within 50 amot (cubits) of the city because the refuse that is scattered by processing the grain will disturb the residents of the city.

The Mishnah also forbids planting trees near the city, which is explained by Ulla in the Gemara as a concern with noyei ha-ir – the beauty of the city. Part of the attractiveness of a walled city is having its walls exposed on the outside.

The Gemara asks why this explanation is necessary, given the biblical principle that the cities of the Levites are surrounded by an empty area of 1,000 amot and a further 2,000 amot that are left available for planting vegetation (see Bamidbar 35:1-8), and explains that we might have thought that there were exceptions to this rule, but the concern with noyei ha-ir trumps any possible exceptions.

The Ramah suggests that the concern with keeping cities beautiful applies both to cities in Israel and in the Diaspora (in his Mirkevet ha-Mishnah Rabbi Shlomo mi-Chelm suggests that this would only apply to cities where the majority of residents are Jewish). His proof is that the Gemara does not simply respond to the question that was raised by saying that Ulla’s explanation was necessary for Diaspora communities where the biblical requirements do not apply. The Ramban disagrees, arguing that our concern with making sure that our cities are beautiful is limited to Israel, where we have a special relationship with the country. The Sema argues that the Shulchan Aruch accepts the Ramban’s position since this law does not appear in the Shulchan Aruch – a work that does not include laws whose only application is in Israel.

Bava Batra 25a-b

Smells can be a serious concern when planning a city. The Mishnah on our daf teaches that three potentially bad smelling operations must be kept at least 50 amot (cubits) from the city – neveilot (animal remains), a cemetery and a bursky (a factory that cures hides and produces leather goods). Furthermore, the Mishnah limits the location of a bursky to the east of a city. Rabbi Akiva allows the bursky to be built on other sides of the city, keeping to the 50 amah limit, with the exception of the west side of the city where it cannot be built.

It appears that the special regulations regarding the bursky stem from the fact that the smell of curing leather is much more noticeable than neveilot or a cemetery. The Tanna Kamma‘s regulation limiting a bursky to the east of the city is explained by Rashi as stemming from the fact that winds from the east are usually milder than those from other directions. Tosafot suggest that the stronger western winds would push the smells away from the city. In his Commentary to the Mishnah the Rambam explains that strong eastern winds are unusual in Israel.

The Gemara explains Rabbi Akiva’s position as based on the fact that the bursky cannot be built in the west because the west is the place of the Shechina – the place where God’s presence resides. This revelation leads to a discussion in the Gemara about the appropriateness of facing west during prayer, and whether we should perceive God as having a physical place and presence or if we should work with the assumption that Shechina be-khol makom – that God’s presence is everywhere.

Tosafot and others point out that the discussion of God’s place seems to run counter to the commonly held halacha – whose source is in Gemara Brachot – that the direction for prayer is always towards Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. The Ramah argues that we need to distinguish between our Gemara’s attempt to clarify a point about God’s presence and the ruling that we relate our payers to Him via the place of the Temple.

Bava Batra 26a-b

How concerned must someone be about damage that is caused indirectly by his property?

The Mishnah on today’s daf teaches that a person should not plant trees next to his neighbor’s field unless he leaves four amot (cubits) of empty space. According to the Mishnah, this applies to both ordinary trees and to grape vines. In the Gemara, Shmuel teaches that the need for four amot is only in Israel; in Bavel only two amot was necessary. Rashi explains that this is a technical issue – that in Bavel a thinner plow was used. Others suggest that since the ground in Israel was harder to work, it was common to use oxen, which took up more space than the donkeys that were popularly used in the softer Babylonian soil.

The Gemara tells the following story:

Rava bar Chanan had trees in his field near Rav Yosef’s vineyard. Birds that flocked to Rava bar Chanan’s trees would damage Rav Yosef’s fruit, and Rav Yosef demanded that Rava cut down his trees. Rava insisted that he had planted his trees reasonably distant from Rav Yosef’s field and therefore had no obligation to cut down his trees. Rav Yosef countered that there needed to be a larger amount of space left between trees and grapevines. Finally Rava refused to cut down his trees on the grounds that they produced a significant amount of fruit and that Rav taught that a tree that produced a kav of fruit could not be cut down because of bal tashchit (see Devarim 20:19). He concluded by telling Rav Yosef that if he felt that the trees had to be cut down, he would have to do it himself.

The question raised by many of the commentaries is that if Rava’s trees were truly causing damage to Rav Yosef, surely he was obligated to cut them down. The Rashba suggests that even Rav Yosef did not claim that the damage was directly caused by Rava’s trees, and that he was not obligated to cut down the trees, rather that it would be a pious response. Rava countered that he if wasn’t truly obligated, there were other concerns that kept him from cutting them down.

Bava Batra 27a-b

Our Gemara quotes a Mishnah in Pe’ah ( 3:6), in which Rabbi Akiva taught that even a very small amount of land is obligated in pe’ah (leaving a corner of the field unharvested for the poor) and bikurim (first fruits that were brought to Jerusalem) and could be used as the basis for writing a pruzbol.

According to the Torah, among other things the Sabbatical year annulled most private loans (see Devarim 15:1-3). Recognizing that lenders were reluctant to offer loans as the Sabbatical year approached – which was, itself forbidden by the Torah (see Devarim 15:9-11), Hillel ha-Zaken established a method that would allow the lenders to collect the debts that were owed to them, even after the Sabbatical year. His suggestion was to write a document – called a pruzbol – that effectively turned the loan over to the courts, which were not constrained by the laws of shemitta, since they do not apply to public debts. Thus, when the Sabbatical year was over, the court would be collecting the debt, rather than the individual. This legal fiction was viewed as a benefit for both the rich – who would not be able to recover their loans – and the poor – who would now be able to borrow money when they needed to.

Rashi explains the need for land as the basis for a pruzbol as stemming from the fact that this law only applied to “normal” loans. In order to be considered a “normal” loan, land had to be made available as a guarantee that the loan would be repaid.

The source for the term pruzbol is Greek, although it is not entirely clear what the word refers to. One suggestion is that it means simply “an announcement delivered to the courts.” Another suggestion is that it means “finalizing the sale.” Other suggestions have been raised, as well.

In addition to his monumental translation and commentary on the Talmud, Rabbi Steinsaltz has authored dozens of books and hundreds of articles on a variety of topics, both Jewish and secular. For more information about Rabbi Steinsaltz’s groundbreaking work in Jewish education, visit or contact the Aleph Society at 212-840-1166.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.