Masechet Bava Metzia 41a-47b

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Unminted Coins
04 Jun 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 41a-b

The Mishnah (40b) teaches about cases where a shomer (someone paid to watch an object for his friend) accidentally breaks the object.

As explained in the Gemara on our daf, the Mishnah opens by teaching that if a havit – a jug or a barrel – falls from the shomer‘s hand and he had picked it up planning to use it, he would be held liable, but if he picked it up to protect it, he would not be responsible. If, however, it broke after he put it down, he would not be held responsible under any circumstances.

According to the second clause of the Mishnah, whether it fell from his hand or broke after he replaced it, he will be held liable if he planned to use it, but will be free of responsibility if he moved it in order to protect it.

Our Gemara explains the discrepancy in the Mishnah by saying that the first half of the Mishnah follows the opinion of Rabbi Yishma’el, who believes that once someone returns his theft he is no longer responsible for it, even if its owner was unaware that it was returned. The second half of the Mishnah follows the opinion of Rabbi Akiva who believes that a thief remains responsible for the object until he informs the owner that he has returned it. In response to the Gemara’s asking whether it is reasonable to divide authorship of the Mishnah between two different Sages, Rabbi Yochanan says “if anyone can explain the Mishnah of havit according to a single tanna, I will carry his clothing after him to the bathhouse.”

The question of how to reconcile two clauses of a given Mishnah is one of the most common issues dealt with in the Talmud. On occasion the Gemara succeeds in working out an apparent contradiction, but when it cannot, there are two methods that most often are suggested:

  1. That there are two different authors of the Mishnah, one who wrote the first half and the other who wrote the second half, or
  2. That the Mishnah is really talking about two different cases.

The Gemara in Masechet Sanhedrin attests to the fact that Rabbi Yochanan is very comfortable with the first approach, and reluctant to try and establish the Mishnah as referring to two different cases.

Bava Metzia 42a-b

Some financial advice from the Sages of the Talmud –

According to Rabbi Yitzhak, it is advisable for a person to divide his wealth into three parts:

  1. Shelish be-karka – one-third in land
  2. Shelish be-frakmatiya – one-third in business investments
  3. Shelish tahat yado – one-third readily available “in hand”

A biblical hint to these recommendations can be found in Sefer Devarim (28:8) where we find that God promises to bless the individual in his granary (understood to mean something that is “in hand,” in his business and in the land.

From the context of the Gemara it appears that the suggestion that money should be kept in land means that it should be hidden by burying it. The Maharsha suggests that this can also be understood to be a recommendation that a person should have part of his wealth invested in real estate, which is seen as a particularly safe investment.

Shmuel rules that the only effective way to safeguard money – coins – is to bury it in the ground. The Rosh explains that the reason money needs a higher level of care to protect it from robbers than do other moveable objects is because robbers prefer to steal money more than any other item, since they will not have to sell it or dispose of it in some other way. Furthermore, unlike other objects, coins will not become ruined by being buried underground.

Shmuel’s ruling notwithstanding, many of the commentaries accept the position presented in the Talmud Yerushalmi that someone who is entrusted to watch someone else’s money is obligated to guard it in the way that is accepted practice in that community. The Me’iri suggests that Shmuel only suggested this with regard to money that needed to be watched closely because there was reason to believe that it might be taken (e.g. by the tax collectors).

Bava Metzia 43a-b

The Mishnah on today’s daf deals with a case of shole’ah yad be-fikadon – a shomer (a watchman) who takes an object that he was entrusted to guard, and makes use of it for his own purposes. Such a person is considered to be a gazlan – a robber – and is now responsible for anything that happens to the object. Should he have to make restitution to the owner, we find a disagreement in the Mishnah regarding the question of how much he will have to pay.

Our Gemara discusses Rabbi Akiva’s ruling, and whether it will make any difference if there are witnesses who testify that they saw the shomer be shole’ach yad be-fikadon. Unable to determine conclusively Rabbi Akiva’s position, Rabbi Zeira instructed Rabbi Abba bar Papa that the next time he traveled to Israel, he should detour past Sulama d’Tzur and ask Rabbi Yaakov bar Idi if he had a tradition in this matter. Upon doing so, Rabbi Yaakov reported that Rabbi Yohanan ruled like Rabbi Akiva in all cases, whether or not there were witnesses.

There were two main routes from Bavel to his destination – Tiberius in Israel. The Southern route would have taken Rabbi Abba from Damascus directly to the Lower Galilee via the Golan Heights. A lengthier route would take him along the Mediterranean coast, from there to Akko and on to Tiberius. To visit Rabbi Yaakov bar Idi, the longer route was the only option.

Sulam d’Tzur is known today as Rosh HaNikra, where there are high cliffs that stand on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea. The cliffs act as a wall on the western side of the Land of Israel.

Bava Metzia 44a-b

According to the Mishnah (43b) there is a difference of opinion between Bet Shammai  and Bet Hillel with regard to someone who is watching something that belongs to his friend, and decides to be shole’ach yad – to make use of it for himself. According to Bet Shammai, from the moment that he thinks that he will be shole’ach yad, he is already responsible; according to Bet Hillel, he would not be responsible unless he actually took the object and used it.

The Gemara explains that both Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel base their positions on passages in the Torah. Bet Shammai understands the pasuk, or verse (Shemot 22:8) to mean that any type of intention of using the item for personal use would make the guard liable. Bet Hillel points to a qualifying pasuk (Shemot 22:7) as teaching that an act must take place before a person will be held responsible.

Some of the rishonim believe that Bet Shammai‘s position holds true even if the man simply thought that he would be shole’ach yad (clearly this will only be true if he admits that that was his intention; otherwise we could not possibly know what he was thinking). The Ritva suggests that Bet Shammai could not obligate the individual unless he minimally stated his intention – which is, in fact, the simple meaning of the passage that Bet Shammai quotes as his source – al kol devar peshah (Shemot 22:8), with the word devar meaning a spoken word. Rashi goes so far as to require that the statement be made before two reliable witnesses, if we are to hold him responsible.

Most of the rishonim agree that our concern is only if the man stated his intent aloud. This forces them to explain why the Mishnah used the terminology ha-choshev l’shlo’ach yad – someone who intends to (or “thinks that he will”) make personal use of the object. One explanation is that even if he says that he will do it, he must intend to do it, as well. If his statement was made in jest or if he was bragging, but he did not intend to use the object, he will not be held responsible.

Bava Metzia 45a-b

How can someone purchase or take possession of something according to Jewish law?

This is one of the central issues dealt with by Perek ha-Zahav, the fourth perek of Masechet Bava Metzia. The first Mishnah in the perek (44a) discusses the purchase of moveable objects, and specifically the status of money (i.e. coins) that is used to buy things.

Somewhat surprisingly, Jewish law does not recognize the validity of a kinyan – a purchase – made with money, unless the buyer also takes possession – at least symbolically – of the object that he purchased. This ruling is based on the opinion of Rabbi Yohanan who believes that on a biblical level, purchase can be made with money, but the Sages limited that kinyan due to a fear that if the seller suffered a fire that destroyed part of his stock, he would claim that what was purchased had been destroyed (nisrefu hitekhah be-aliyah – “your wheat was burned up in the attic”).

Another acceptable method of kinyan is called chalipin – exchange. Even though, as we have learned, transferring money to another person does not establish ownership of an object that has been purchased, if two people want to make an exchange, a kinyan would take place. For example, if two people agreed to exchange a cow for a donkey, once an act of kinyan is made on one of the animals, the second animal transfers to the possession of the other person with the kinyan made on the first animal.

Our Gemara discusses whether a coin can be used to purchase something by means of chalipin. That is to say, can the buyer and seller agree that the kinyan should take place because the object will be exchanged for the money. The opinion that money cannot be used for chalipin argues that when using money the point is the tzurah – the image on the coin. Most rishonim understand that this means that a coin is not valued for the intrinsic worth of its metal, but for what it represents. Only an object with intrinsic value can be used for chalipin.

Bava Metzia 46a-b

As we learned on yesterday’s daf ordinarily we do not assume that a purchase – a kinyan – can be made with the exchange of money, since, as Rabbi Yochanan teaches, although on a biblical level, purchase can be made with money, the Sages limited that kinyan due to a fear that if the seller suffered a fire that destroyed part of his stock, he would claim that what was purchased had been destroyed (nisrefu hitekhah be-aliyah – “your wheat was burned up in the attic”).

Furthermore, it appears that money cannot be used to effect purchase, even if it is done as part of an exchange – chalipin – a method that works only when objects of value are exchanged.

The Gemara on our daf questions this assumption by quoting a Mishnah that teaches that all moveable objects can purchase one another, to which Rash Lakish adds “even a bag full of coins can purchase a bag full of coins.” Rav Aha explains that this would only be true in a case where the coins had been removed from circulation – either by the monarchy or by the local government. Since the coins no longer had value as money, they could only be seen as valuable for their value of the metal, and as a commodity they are seen as ordinary objects, which can be purchased by means of chalipin.

Occasionally the government would forbid use of certain coins, usually because of political reasons, e.g. when a rebellious leader would mint coins. The coins minted by bar Kozibah, more popularly known as bar Kochba, leader of the great revolt against Rome are one example. During the short-lived independent Jewish rule in Jerusalem at that time, bar Kochba minted coins. As can be imagined, these coins that celebrated independence were forbidden to be used by the Roman government.

Local governments would occasionally refuse to allow use of coins that were minted by the monarchy if they lowered the amount of valuable metal that was used in their formulation.

Bava Metzia 47a-b

As we have learned, Jewish law does not recognize the validity of a kinyan – a purchase – made with money, unless the buyer also takes possession of the object that he purchased. Furthermore we saw that this applies to purchase made with money, but that when trading one object for another, as soon as a kinyan is made on the first thing, the trade takes effect.

One case discussed in the Mishnah (44a) is that of an asimon – a token. The Mishnah teaches that an asimon is not considered a coin, so unlike ordinary money, it can be used to effect a kinyan.

In defining the term asimon, the Gemara on today’s daf quotes Rav as saying that it is a token that is used in the bathhouse. It was common practice for bathhouses to distribute metal “entrance tickets” that were later used to collect payment. The Gemara rejects this understanding of asimon because of a Mishnah where we find that there is a difference of opinion as to whether an asimon can be used to redeem ma’aser sheni (the tithe taken to Jerusalem), but all agree that a bathhouse token cannot be used. The Gemara accepts the opinion quoted in the name of Rabbi Yochanan, that an asimon is a pulsa – a metal piece that is empty of any form.

Rashi explains that the asimon has no form on it because it has not yet been stamped, but many of the rishonim suggest that it once had a design stamped on it, but it became rubbed off and can no longer be used as a coin or it was stamped with something other than normal coinage. According to the Meiri it is a coin that was stamped in a negative fashion, i.e. rather than standing out, the form on the coin is indented.

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.