Masechet Bava Kamma 117a-119b

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Stolen Goods
22 Apr 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 Kamma 117a-b

During Talmudic times, one of the most disturbing elements in the Jewish community was a moser – someone who collaborated with the foreign government, informing on his fellow Jews. Such a person was perceived as being dangerous to the well-being of the society at large. This led to a ruling by the Sages that a moser could be killed in order to protect the community.

In an illustration of this rule, the Gemara tells of someone who was warned by Rav that he could not inform the government about his neighbor’s straw (as we have learned, tax collectors were seen as generally dishonest during this period, having purchased the right to collect taxes according to their own whims), but who insisted that he was going to do so, in any case. Rav Kahane who was present and saw the interaction between them, stepped forward and killed the man, given his insistence of playing the role of a moser. Recognizing the danger that Rav Kahane now faced as an accused murderer, Rav pointed out to him that with the passing of the Parthian rulers – who were lax in their rule, and allowed autonomous rule for minorities – and the rise of the Sassanian Dynasty – who were much more involved in the day-to-day lives of their subjects, Rav Kahane could be accused of murder. Rav suggested that Rav Kahane move to Israel and study with the great Israeli amora, Rabbi Yochanan, but insisted that he accept upon himself not to ask him questions for a period of seven years.

The Maharsha explains that Rav’s insistence of Rav Kahane’s acceptance of this limitation on his study may have been a type of penance – not for the act of killing the moser, but for ruling about this case in the presence of his teacher. Therefore, an appropriate penance would be to refrain from asking questions, even in areas that were not clear rulings. The Iyun Yaakov suggests otherwise, arguing that Rav was simply instructing his student to accept the traditions of study in Israel, where the accepted method involved discussion rather than questioning.

Upon his arrival in Israel, Rav Kahane impressed the students in Rabbi Yochanan’s academy, but when he was given a prize seat in the front of the classroom, heeding Rav’s advice, he did not participate in the class discussion. Upon being demoted seven rows, Rav Kahane felt that the demotion was equivalent of the seven years that his teacher had ruled he should remain silent in class, and he once again began to question and offer answers in the classroom.

Bava Kamma 118a-b

The Mishnah on our daf lists a number of cases where it is forbidden to purchase things because we fear that they may be stolen goods.

These include, for example

In situations where the owner knows and approves of certain activities, there is no problem with purchasing products.

Examples of such arrangements are:

The Mishnah rules, however, that in all cases where the purchaser is told to hide what he bought, it is forbidden to purchase, since it is likely stolen property.

The Gemara quotes a baraita that expands on these rules, explaining, for example, that already sewn woolen clothing can be purchased from shepherds, since we assume that it belongs to them. The general principle taught by the baraita is that anything that the shepherd sells that the owner would notice can be purchased.

One rule that the baraita mentions is that milk or cheese can be purchased in the desert, but not in a settled area. Rashi explains that since it is difficult to transport these back to the owner, there must be an agreement between the owner and the shepherd allowing the shepherd to keep them; Rav Ovadia mi-Bartenura suggests that there may even be an agreement that the shepherd should sell them and give the proceeds to the owner. The Rambam had a different reading, which allowed for purchase of milk and cheese in settled areas and forbidding it in the desert. The explanation for this position is that only in the city will the owner be able to see what the shepherd is doing. In the desert, where the owner cannot properly supervise the shepherd’s activities, we must be more careful about purchasing stolen goods.

Bava Kamma 119a-b

As we saw one the previous daf, our Gemara is discussing how it is forbidden to purchase things that are likely stolen. Our Gemara asks for a ruling that would clarify when it would be permissible again to buy from someone who was known to be a thief. (It is worth noting that there are a number of variant readings to this Gemara – some manuscripts have the question of focusing on deriving benefit from the thief; others on collecting outstanding loans from him.)  In response, the Gemara offers two opinions: Rav suggests that we must wait until most of what he has is his own; Shmuel rules that when even a small part of what he has is his own.

The Me’iri understands that question of our Gemara to be asking at what point can we buy from a known thief, and be fairly certain that we are not aiding and abetting criminal acts by purchasing stolen goods. Rav Ovadia mi-Bartenura suggests that the case in the Gemara is one where the thief has repented, and the question is not related to the stolen goods themselves as much as about when we can derive benefit from the thief’s property.

Rav’s ruling that we need to wait until the majority of the thief’s possessions belong to him is based on the common ruling about rov – that we follow the majority. Once we reach that point, from a halakhic standpoint we can assume that anything purchased from him is not stolen. Shmuel does not require a majority of his possessions to be his own, since in any case we are not certain that what the thief is selling is actually stolen – it is only a suspicion. In such a case, once we are certain that some of what he owns is not stolen property, we can work with the assumption that what we are buying from him can be presumed to be without problems.

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.