Masechet Bava Metzia 27a-33b

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21 May 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 Metzia 27a-b

What lost objects must be announced in an attempt to locate the owner and return it? The Mishnah on our daf reiterates the principle that we have seen – just like a garment (see Devarim 22:3) is something that has simanim – unique characteristics that can be used to prove ownership – all things that have simanim and whose owners will come to claim them, must be announced and returned.

Our Gemara asks whether the use of simanim is Biblical or of Rabbinic origin. The Gemara explains that while even a rabbinic ordinance would obligate someone to return an ordinary object based on simanim, whether or not the simanim can be relied upon to return a get – a divorce document – for example, would depend on whether simanim are Biblical. If they are only Rabbinic, then we could not rely on them to allow a married woman to be considered divorced.

The rishonim explain that there are three different levels of simanim:

  1. Simanim muvhakim – clear, well established simanim, e.g. “there is a hole next to a certain letter on the document”
  2. Simanim emtza’iyim – middle level simanim, e.g. the length or weight of an object
  3. Simanim klaliyim – general simanim, e.g. the color, or that something is “long” or “heavy”

According to most opinions, the halacha is that Simanim muvhakim are considered clear proof of an object’s ownership, even on a Biblical level, while Simanim klaliyim are not considered to be reliable at all. The question in our Gemara is whether the Simanim emtza’iyim – the middle-level simanim – can also be relied upon on a Biblical level or only as a Rabbinic enactment, in which case they could be relied upon for most things, but not for questions of establishing personal status.

Bava Metzia 28a-b

We have established that in many cases, someone who finds a lost object is obligated to announce his find in an attempt to locate the owner and return the object. The first Mishnah on today’s daf asks how long must the finder persist in announcing his find? Rabbi Me’ir rules that he must be sure to inform the local residents in the area where the object was found. According to Rabbi Yehuda the finder must announce it at the Temple in Jerusalem over a period of three pilgrimage festivals (regalim) and then give people time to return to their homes to see if the object that was described was theirs and that it was missing.

Clearly this Mishnah describes a situation when the Temple was standing and there was an opportunity to announce information to the entire Jewish community. The baraitot describe that during different historical periods, announcements were made according to the needs of the times:

The anasim mentioned by the baraita were people who informed the government – which, under Persian law, could claim ownership of lost objects – of the announcements that were being made, which led to the confiscation of those objects by the government.

The Gemara closes by describing that when the Temple stood there was a special stone – the even ha-to’en – that stood in Jerusalem and was the place where “finders” and “losers” would go to try and locate one another. Today, modern technology connects people in different ways. To see a modern-day even ha-to’en, see

Bava Metzia 29a-b

As we have learned, someone who finds a lost object is obligated to announce it and return it. Since he must return it in good condition, he must care for it while he has it. The previous Mishnah (28b) described how a person must care for an animal; the Mishnah on our daf discusses what kind of care must be given to inanimate objects like scrolls, clothing, metal utensils, etc.

According to our Mishnah, sefarim (usually translated as “books” but in this case they are scrolls, like a Torah scroll) should be opened and read once every thirty days. If the individual does not know how to read, he should open them and roll them, but only in a manner that would be ordinary use, i.e. he should not study something that he had never learned before, since it would wear out a specific page, nor should he study with a partner, who might pull the scroll towards him, leading it to tear.

In the Gemara, Shmuel teaches that someone who finds Tefillin – phylacteries – in the marketplace can establish their value and use them. Ravina objects that the simple reading of the Mishnah does not seem to indicate that the finder can establish the value of an object and then make use of it. Abayye responds to Ravina by saying that Tefillin were commonplace in be bar Havu, while sefarim were not.

Be bar Havu – the house of “bar Havu” – was a large family enterprise in the city of Mechoza where Tefillin and mezuzot were manufactured. The people from this family who worked there are mentioned in a number of places in the Talmud as experts in their field. Since this factory existed, it was not at all difficult to find Tefillin for purchase, and if someone who lost his Tefillin received their value in return, it would not be difficult for him to buy a new pair. Sefarim, however, were much more difficult to buy, so it was important that the original scroll be returned.

Bava Metzia 30a-b

Are we always obligated to pick up and return every lost object? Must we always assist him with his loads?

From a simple reading of the pesukim in the Torah (see Shemot 23:4-5; Devarim 22:1-4) we do not find any exclusions. The sages in our Gemara, however, do distinguish between different cases. According to the Mishnah (29b) if someone sees an object that he would not ordinarily pick up – even if it was his own – he is not obligated to pick it up in order to return it to another. The terminology used in the baraita to describe this is zaken v’eino le-fi kevodo – an elderly person (or, perhaps, a scholar), for whom this object is not befitting his honor. At the same time, Rabbah teaches that once someone touches an animal that was lost, he becomes obligated to return it in any case.

Rashi and the Rambam explain Rabbah’s ruling as being based on the fact that by touching or hitting the animal, the finder has “begun” the mitzvah and becomes obligated to complete it. . The Rosh and the Ran disagree, arguing that this is a special halakhah that is true only in the case of an animal, since by touching or hitting it the animal may become more confused. Someone who has effectively driven the lost animal further from its owner becomes obligated in ensuring its return.

To illustrate this law, the Gemara tells of Rabbi Yishma’el be-Rabbi Yossi who was walking and met a man carrying wood. The man put down his load to rest, and then asked Rabbi Yishmael to assist him in reloading them (see Devarim 22:4). Rabbi Yishmael, who was a wealthy individual and did not ordinarily perform such tasks, asked him how much the wood was worth (it was half a zuz), and rather than assist him, purchased the wood from him. After Rabbi Yishmael made the wood hefker (having no use for it, he declared it to be ownerless), the man reclaimed it and again asked Rabbi Yishmael for assistance. Rabbi Yishmael again purchased it from him and declared it ownerless. Then the man reclaimed it and, again, asked Rabbi Yishmael to help him load it. Yet again, Rabbi Yishmael purchased it from him, but this time declared it ownerless for everyone in the world except for this individual.

To the Gemara’s objection that Rabbi Yishmael was not obligated to help this man in the first place, given our ruling that zaken ve-eino le-fi kevodo is free of such obligations, the Gemara responds that lifnim mi-shurat ha-din hu d’avad – that Rabbi Yishmael was going beyond the letter of the law in his behavior.

Bava Metzia 31a-b

We have seen that someone who finds a lost object is obligated to announce its find in an attempt to locate the owner. Furthermore we have learned that the finder must care
for the object so that it will be returned in good condition. Can the finder demand to be paid for his services?

The Mishna (30b) rules that the finder cannot ask that he be repaid lost wages for the amount of time that he spend dealing with the lost object, although he can expect to be paid for his time as a po’el – a simple worker. Another option suggested in the Mishnah is for him to approach the local Jewish court and arrange to be paid his lost wages in exchange for dealing with the lost item. If there is no local bet din, the Mishnah rules that he need not lose his wages, and his own work will take priority over the mitzvah of returning the lost object.

In our Gemara, Abayye explains that the payment the finder will receive if he does not make a special arrangement through the bet din is ke-po’el batel me-oto melacha de-batel minah – “like a laborer who has lost out on the work that he missed.” There are a number of opinions offered in explanation of this line.

According to Rashi, it is the amount that a person is willing to accept less than his usual wage were he to be offered an easier, but lower paying job. It is this lower amount that the person to whom the object is returned must pay.

Several of the rishonim (e.g. Rabbeinu Chananel, the Ri”f, the Ra’avad and others) suggest that when a craftsman has no work, he may be willing to accept less than his usual wage to do work. It is that lower wage that must be paid.

Bava Metzia 32a-b

According to the Mishnah, if a parent instructs a child to ignore a lost object and not to return it, the child cannot listen to the parent.

The commandment of honoring one’s mother and father is one of the most basic mitzvot in the Torah, one that appears in the Ten Commandments (see Shemot 20:11). What if a father or mother commands their child to perform an act forbidden by the Torah? Would the child be obligated to perform the forbidden act because of aseh docheh lo ta’aseh – that the positive commandment obligating a child to listen to his or her parent overrides the negative commandment?

To this question the Gemara responds that the child cannot listen to his father or mother. The source for this is the passage in Vayikra (19:3), where we find that the commandment to be in awe of one’s parents – ish imo ve-aviv tira’u – is followed immediately by the commandment to keep the Shabbat – ve-et Shabtotai tishmoru. The juxtaposition of these two ideals is understood by the Gemara to teach kulkhem hayyavim bi-chevodi – that in a situation where the parent is obligated to show his awe of God by keeping a mitzvah, he cannot order his child to transgress that mitzvah.

The Gemara’s explanation appears to be logical and straightforward. Since the parent is not allowed to make this demand, it cannot possibly obligate the child. The Me’iri argues that the case must be one where the request that is made is something that the parent needs, because if the parent demands that his child transgress a commandment for no reason, he falls into the category of a rasha – an evil person – for whom there is no mitzvah of kibbud (honor). The Hagahot Maimoniyot, one of the commentaries on the Rambam, reaches the opposite conclusion: that the case is one where the parent demands that the child transgress for no reason. Nevertheless, a simple oral statement does not make a person a rasha. Therefore the child remains obligated to listen to his father and mother in this case, were it not for the Gemara’s argument that kulkhem hayyavim bi-chevodi.

Bava Metzia 33a-b

When fulfilling the commandment of returning lost objects, must a person put others’ interests before his own? The Mishna on our daf clearly rules that a person must look out for his own financial interests. Thus, a person must take care of his own property before returning a lost object to others – even to his father or to his teacher. Nevertheless, the Mishnah teaches that his teacher will take precedence over his father with regard to these laws, since his father brought him into this world but his teacher has prepared him for the World to Come.

We find several opinions in the Gemara with regard to the definition of rabo – “his teacher.” Rabbi Meir says that it refers to his teacher who taught conceptual thinking, not merely the written or even the oral Torah. Rabbi Yehuda says that it is the individual from whom he learned most of what he knows. Rabbi Yossi says that anyone from whom he learned – even it was only a single Mishnah – would be considered his teacher.

Ulla concludes the discussion in the Gemara by sharing the observation that Babylonian scholars stand up to honor one another, but with regard to giving precedence to a teacher over a parent in returning lost objects, they would only do so for their primary teacher, the one from whom they gained most of their knowledge.

In the early generations of the amoraim, there was a clear difference between the organization of Torah study in Bavel as opposed to what existed in Israel. In Israel, the study halls were influenced by the bet din ha-gadol – the great court of the Sanhedrin – and there was a clear hierarchy, with most of the learning taking place in the study halls under the direction of the Rosh Yeshiva. In Bavel, there was a large amount of independence for the different yeshivot, and most of the students came for short sessions, called yarchei kallah. Thus, most of the learning took place in small groups, and the scholars viewed each other as teachers and peers, having learned more from each other than from the heads of the academies.

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.