Masechet Bava Metzia 55a-61b

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18 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 55a-b

The Mishnah on our daf teaches that there are a number of laws that all have a similar rule attached to them – that when redeeming them or paying for them, aside from the value of the object itself, an additional one-fifth must be paid. These laws include cases when someone who is not a kohen eats from the priestly tithes:

HaOchel – when someone eats:

In the Gemara, Rava quotes Rabbi Elazar as questioning one of those cases. Regarding ma’aser shel demai, how can the sages require the same obligation on their rabbinic enactment as exists on Torah laws? In response, Rav Nachman quotes Shmuel as saying that this Mishnah follows Rabbi Meir who rules regarding a divorce case that the Sages can require that their enactments carry the same weight as Torah laws.

In truth, the Gemara’s question is somewhat odd, since we find many places in the Talmud where rabbinic enactments are given the same status as Torah law, and occasionally even a higher status than Torah law.

Some suggest that the question in this case stems from the unique situation of demai. The Rabbinic rule about demai is that we are concerned that farmers may choose to separate terumah gedolah – the basic tithe, which is a very small amount – but refrain from separating the other required tithes. Thus, the enactment is a very weak one, since it shows concern for the fact that a small minority of people may not be separating their tithes properly. The Gemara found it surprising that aside from creating this enactment, the Rabbis further ruled that if demai was eaten accidentally a penalty should be paid. The response of the Gemara is that in Rabbi Meir’s case of divorce there is also a very unlikely situation, yet it is one that Rabbi Meir was very stringent about the rabbinic decree.

Bava Metzia 56a-b

The Mishnah on today’s daf focuses on four things that do not follow the same rules as most other objects with regard to business transactions and related issues. The four are:

The first rule of the Mishnah is that the rules of ona’ah – rules that forbid overcharging or undercharging at the time of sale – do not apply in any of these cases. The Gemara explains that this is learned from the passage that is the source of the prohibition of ona’ah (Vayikra 25:14), where the Torah teaches that ona’ah is forbidden when something is sold or bought me-yad amitechah – from your fellow’s hand. This is understood to exclude real estate which does not transfer from hand to hand. The other cases are derived by the Gemara from the law about real estate.

Although the source for this law is biblical, some suggest logical reasons that may be the foundation for these ideas. One idea is that real estate cannot be valued the same way moveable property can, and has greater importance than other things, since it lasts forever.

Another set of laws that does not apply to these cases are the penalties that a thief must pay if the object is stolen over and above returning the value of the stolen object – usually keifel (double payment), and occasionally four or five times the object’s worth, if it was an ox or a sheep that was stolen and then killed or sold. A question that is raised by the rishonim is how these rules can apply to real estate – how can immovable property be stolen? Tosafot in Bava Kamma offers two suggestions – either we are talking about a case of masig gevul – someone who tampers with the border markings between fields, or we are talking about a case of something that is mechubar l’karka – something that is connected to the ground, and therefore has the same rules as the land itself.

Bava Metzia 57a-b

For the past several dapim (pages) the Gemara has been discussing the laws of ona’ah – of sales or purchases where the agreed upon price differs from accepted cost by one-sixth or more.

As we learned on yesterday’s daf the sages conclude from the pasuk in Vayikra (25:14) – which is the source for the prohibition of ona’ah – that ona’ah applies only when something is sold or bought me-yad amitechah – from your fellow’s hand. Thus we conclude that ona’ah does not apply in a number of cases, including the purchase of slaves, contracts, real estate and things consecrated to the Temple. The Gemara assumes that this means that purchase or sale differential of these things can be greater than one-sixth, and still the purchase or sale is valid.

Our Gemara offers a different perspective, at least in the case of hekdeshot – things that have been consecrated to the Temple – by quoting Rav Chisda who believes that by saying ona’ah does not apply the Mishnah means that the normal rules of ona’ah does not apply, rather even more stringent rules of ona’ah apply. In the case of hekdeshot, Rav Chisda rules that even a minimal difference between the actual price and the price that is paid will invalidate the sale.

Several explanations are offered for Rav Chisda’s position. The Ra’avad suggests that since the Torah is very scrupulous about evaluating the worth of consecrated objects, we cannot allow even a small overpayment to be made by the Temple. According to the Rosh, in ordinary cases, less than one-sixth overpayment is not considered ona’ah because the owner “forgives” such a small error. With regard to property owned by the Temple, however, there is no one in a position to “forgive” a small overcharge, so even a small amount would be considered ona’ah.

Bava Metzia 58a-b

The Mishna on today’s daf teaches that ona’ah – a term that we have defined as “unfair business transactions” applies not only to buying and selling, but to other areas of personal interaction, as well. Thus, it is prohibited for a person to ask a shopkeeper for the price of an object that he has no interest in purchasing. This ona’at devarim applies in a range of other situations, as well – the Mishnah includes reminding a ba’al teshuva (a penitent) of his earlier sins, or the child of a convert of the sins of his parents.

According to the Me’iri, the main concept of ona’at devarim is the emotional pain and suffering that one person causes to another, whose linguistic root can be found in a passage in Yeshayahu (49:21). As we have seen, the Mishnah opens by describing a case of ona’at devarim that is connected with a commercial transaction, but then continues by including personal matters in this category, as well.

The baraita quoted by the Gemara assigns a passage in Vayikra (25:14) as the source for ordinary, commercial, ona’ah, and a later pasuk, or verse (Vayikra 25:17) as the source for ona’at devarim. Rabbi Yochanan quotes Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai as teaching that ona’at devarim is the more severe of the two, since the Torah includes a comment that “you should fear God” in the passage from which we learn ona’at devarim. The Maharsha explains that this may stem from the fact that a person who is committing ona’at devarim will often deny the accusation, showing that he fears his fellow man – who cannot know his true intention – more than he fears God, who certainly knows what truly is his intent.

Sages in the Gemara are quoted as pointing to a number of reasons that ona’at devarim is considered so severe – Rabbi Elazar suggests that it is the difference between making the individual suffer personally or making his money suffer; Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani argues that money can always be returned, but ona’at devarim cannot be undone.

Bava Metzia 59a-b

One of the most famous stories in the Talmud appears on today’s daf.

The Gemara presents a fairly straightforward argument between the Sages. A question was raised about the status of an oven that was made of separate pieces and then placed together with sand between the pieces. Should this tanur shel achnai – this “snake oven” – be seen as having lost its status as an existing oven when taken apart and rebuilt, or is it considered an oven throughout, since it was made to be taken apart in this way? Rabbi Eliezer felt that it lost its status as an oven and therefore, had it become ritually defiled, it would lose that status, as well; the Chachamim ruled that it retained its status throughout.

Rather than argue the case on its merits, the Gemara records that Rabbi Eliezer called on the carob tree to support him, the flowing water to support him, and the walls of the study hall to support him. In response to his call, the carob tree uprooted itself and moved 400 amot (cubits), the spring flowed backwards and the walls began to collapse – until Rabbi Yehoshua stopped them. The Sages refused to be influenced by any of these miraculous occurrences. Finally Rabbi Eliezer asked the heavens to support his position, and a bat kol – a heavenly voice – was heard to say “Why are you arguing with Rabbi Eliezer, whose rulings are always correct?” In response the Sages said lo ba’shamyim he – since the Torah was given to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai, decisions are no longer made based on heavenly decisions, but on the decisions of the Rabbis who interpret it.

While some rishonim take this story literally and explain that miracles were performed on behalf of the Talmudic sages, just as they were for the early prophets, Rabbeinu Chananel suggests another approach. He argues that this story was a dream – a vision at night – that seemed so real and significant that it was recorded for the message that it contains.

Bava Metzia 60a-b

Who invented loss-leaders? Free giveaways? Sales promotions are not modern inventions – they have been with us since time immemorial.

The Mishnah on today’s daf discusses these kinds of promotions and the permissibility of their use. We find that Rabbi Yehuda forbids a storekeeper from giving out treats to small children, since that will give him an unfair advantage. Similarly, he forbids a storekeeper from lowering his prices to attract clients, since he is taking them from his competitors. The Chachamim of the Mishnah disagree, arguing that someone who lowers prices should be praised rather than vilified. The Gemara explains the reasoning of the Chachamim by saying that the storekeeper can argue that his competitor is welcome to offer similar – and even more generous promotions – if he wants to compete.

One business practice that the Mishnah clearly forbids is “prettying up” merchandise in order to trick people when they are considering its purchase. To illustrate this ruling, the Gemara tells of a slave who dyed his hair and his beard black and approached Rava and offered himself for sale. Rava responded by quoting the Mishnah in Masechet Avot (1:5) that poor people should be members of your household. Since Rava fulfilled this dictum he had a lot of help at home and had no need for a slave. The man then approached Rav Papa bar Shmuel, who agreed to the purchase. When Rav Papa asked him to fetch water, he washed out the dye and responded “I am even older than your father” indicating that he could not be expected to draw water.

The Rashba explains that this slave was a Jewish man who wanted to work in a Jewish home, and therefore offered himself for “sale,” but Rashi suggests that this was a case of an eved Kena’ani – a non-Jewish slave who had been partially set free by his original master.

Bava Metzia 61a-b

In the context of discussing forbidden loans, i.e. loans that charge interest, Rava asks the following question –

Why does the Torah juxtapose the Exodus from Egypt with:

  1. Charging interest on loans (Vayikra 25:37-38)
  2. Weights and measures (Vayikra 19:36-37)
  3. Tzitzit – the fringes placed on four-cornered garments (Bamidbar 15:37-41)

Rava explains that God is teaching that just as He distinguished between the firstborn and ordinary Egyptian child at the time of the final plague, similarly He is able to –

  1. Recognize the individual who gives his money to a non-Jew in order to charge interest on a loan to Jews
  2. Know who buried his weights in salt in order to change their weight
  3. Recognize the difference between dye from the true-blue chilazon and kela ilan.

The consensus of most opinions is that the chilazon is the snail Murex trunculus that is found on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea in the north of Israel. This creature has a unique liquid dye (that is not the animal’s blood), which, when mixed with other materials, produces the blue tekhelet color described in the Torah. Already during Talmudic times the use of tekhelet became a rarity, and within a short time its true source was forgotten.

Kela ilan is apparently a plant – Indigofera tinctora – a legume with red, purple or white flowers. True indigo dye was extracted from its leaves in Talmudic times and until recently. Today it has largely been replaced with synthetic dyes. It would appear that this plant dye was very similar in its appearance to the tekhelet of the hilazon, but was a much cheaper alternative. Only through complicated examinations could the two dyes be told apart. The rishonim explain that Rava in the Gemara is not talking about someone who mistakenly wore tzitzit with kela ilan, but someone who offers the dye for sale, claiming that it is the real tekhelet.

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.