Masechet Bava Metzia 62a-68b

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25 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 62a-b

The fifth perek of Masechet Bava Metzia, which began on daf 60b, focuses on the prohibition of ribit – of charging interest. This prohibition is mentioned three times in the Torah (Shemot 22:24, Vayikra 25:35-38 and Devarim (23:20-21). The straightforward case of biblically forbidden ribit is called ribit ketzutzah – interest that is set at a given sum or percentage of the loan. The Sages added other forms of interest, adding cases where there is an appearance of interest given changes in the pricing or value of objects that are bought and sold, for example.

It is clear that a person who charges interest should repay his ill-gotten gains. Will the Jewish courts force him to return ribit that he collected?

The Gemara (61b) brings two different opinions regarding this matter. Rabbi Elazar rules that the courts will force a person to return ribit ketzutzah, but not avak ribit – interest that is only forbidden on a rabbinic level. Rabbi Yochanan believes that the courts will not require any ribit to be returned. While several sources are suggested for Rabbi Yochanan’s ruling, the Gemara brings one passage to support Rabbi Elazar – ve-hei ahikhah imakh (Vayikra 25:36). In the midst of the laws forbidding usury, the Torah says “…and your brother should live with you.” Rabbi Elazar understands this as requiring the individual who takes interest to return it, so that his brother can live, as well.

What teaching does Rabbi Yochanan learn from this passage? The Gemara tells of a well-known argument between ben Peturah and Rabbi Akiva. Ben Peturah ruled that if two men are in the desert and only one of them has enough water to reach civilization, he is obligated to share it with his fellow, rather than watch him die. Rabbi Akiva quotes this pasuk to say that your brother must live with you, implying that you must have greater concern for your own life than for your fellow’s, and that the owner of the water should keep it for himself in order to survive.

One question that is raised by the commentaries regarding Rabbi Akiva’s teaching is why a general rule like this one would appear in the midst of the Torah’s discussion of ribit? One answer that is suggested is that this comes to teach that a person who does not have enough money for his own needs should not feel an obligation to lend money to his friend who is in need.

Bava Metzia 63a-b

Can a merchant offer to give a discount to someone who is willing to pay in full for his purchase?

While this seems like a straightforward situation of a worthwhile business transaction – the merchant is interested in having money “in hand” and is willing to lower his profit margin in order to receive that money “up front” – the laws of ribit, of the prohibition limiting people from taking interest, limit some of these agreements.

Rav Nachman teaches a basic principle of ribit – any payment that is made whose purpose is to delay the lender from collecting his money now is considered ribit. Thus, Rav Nachman rules that if the market price for wax is fours loaves of wax for a zuz and someone selling wax offers five loaves of wax for a zuz to a purchaser who is willing to pay well before receiving the merchandise, there may be problems with the agreement. If the wax merchant has the merchandise in his possession at the time of the agreed upon sale, the agreement is valid, since the merchant is simply giving a discount in exchange for pre-payment.  If, however, the wax merchant did not have an inventory of wax, he is effectively borrowing money from the purchaser, and in exchange is repaying him with more wax than was paid for – which is considered a case of paying interest on the loan. The Gemara explains that this is true even in a case where the merchant has a line of credit and will be able to get hold of the wax, nevertheless, if he does not have it in hand, we will apply Rav Nachman’s rule.

The rishonim ask why Rav Nachman needs to teach that “any payment that is made whose purpose is to delay the lender from collecting his money now is considered ribit,” which is, effectively a simple restatement of the biblical rule forbidding interest. The Ra’avad suggests that Rav Nachman’s statement is only really necessary to teach the rule as is illustrated by the case that is brought – that even in the context of a business transaction, the rule of ribit would still apply.

Bava Metzia 64a-b

Following on the heels of the discussion on yesterday’s daf regarding the possibility of ribit (forbidden interest) even in cases of purchases that are paid for in advance, the Gemara on our daf tells of a similar ruling.

Once Rav Kahane was sitting in the back of the Rav‘s study hall and he heard that Rav who was lecturing to the students said kari, kari (“pumpkins, pumpkins”), but he was not able to follow the context in which Rav made that reference. After the lecture he asked the students to tell him what issue Rav was discussing, and they told him that he was teaching about a case where someone selling pumpkins offered a better deal to a purchaser who was willing to pay in advance. Specifically, he taught about a case where someone offers a zuz to a farmer in exchange for pumpkins at a time when the market rate is ten small pumpkins for a zuz. If the farmer offers to supply large ones at a later date in exchange for the zuz, that offer can only be accepted if the farmer has large ones in hand at the time of the agreement. If, however, he does not have them in hand, then he effectively is taking a loan from the purchaser and is offering to pay back more than was borrowed – a clear case of ribit. The Gemara explains that Rav’s ruling adds to our knowledge that even in a case where the same objects are given, whether they are large or small (since the pumpkins get larger on their own), still it would be considered a case of ribit.

Kari (or kera) are identified as bottle pumpkins – Logenaria vulgaris – a summer vegetable. These vegetables usually grow on the ground, although occasionally their vines are placed on stands. The flesh of the pumpkin is usually eaten cooked while the pumpkin seeds are commonly eaten as a snack or dessert.

Bava Metzia 65a-b

As we have seen on the previous dapim, when offering a discount on a sale for pre-payment, there may be a problem of ribit (forbidden interest), since the pre-payment can be viewed as a loan, and by offering a discount, the merchant may be seen as repaying more than he received.

The Mishnah on today’s daf teaches that there is a difference between offering a discount on rent and offering a discount on a purchase. At the time that someone rents his yard he is allowed to tell the renter that he has a choice – he can choose to pay ten sela’im for the entire year if he pays up-front (a total cost of ten sela’im), or else he can pay one sela every month (a total cost of twelve sela’im). If he was offering his field for sale, however, he would not be allowed to give the purchaser a choice of either paying 1000 zuz up-front or 12 maneh (1200 zuz) at harvest time, since that would be considered ribit.

The Gemara explains the difference between the two cases by quoting Rabbah and Rav Yosef who agree that rent is only owed at the end of the agreed upon period. Therefore, when offering a choice of paying ten sela’im now or twelve sela’im if payment is made at the end of the month, the true value of the rental is twelve sela’im, and the owner is simply offering a discount for early payment. In situations of buying and selling, however, the purchase price should be paid at the time that the sale is made. Therefore the perspective taken by the Sages is that the cost for “early” payment is the base price and paying more for a “late” payment is effectively ribit on a loan.

When this ruling appears codified in the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah 176:6) the Rama points out that even in cases of renting we can find situations that ribit can be a problem. If the owner and the renter agreed on a final price for the year, and then the owner says that if the renter wants to spread the payments out every month he expects to receive more, that would be considered a case of forbidden interest.

Bava Metzia 66a-b

Not every statement made by people who do business together is significant.

The Gemara (65b) describes a situation where someone sold a field with a stipulation that he does not guarantee the sale (i.e. if someone with a lien on the field comes and collects it from the purchaser, the original owner is not obligated to make up the loss). When he saw that the purchaser was upset, and he realized that the purchaser was concerned that he might lose his investment, the seller assured him that if the field was taken, he would pay the value of the field as well as the investment that was made in the field and the produce that was lost. Ameimar rules that this promise has no legal standing and we view it merely as words of encouragement, not an obligation.

The simple reading of the Gemara appears to explain this ruling as based on who is making the condition. Asking for a guarantee on the field should be the responsibility of the purchaser, not the seller, so we view the seller’s promise as mere words of encouragement. The Ra’avad quotes the Geonim as offering a different approach. They argue that in this case the condition is made at the wrong time – it should have been included in the agreement at the very beginning of their business transaction and not after the transfer of property had already taken place.

The Gemara continues with a similar story. On his death-bed, a man arranges for a get – a document of divorce – to be written for his wife. (This was usually done if the man had a brother, but he had no children, and the husband wanted to save the widow from “falling” to yibum or participating in chalitza.) When handing over the document to his wife, she heard him groan. Realizing that he was unhappy divorcing her she told him that there was no need for concern, since if he recovered she would remarry him. Here, too, Rav Zevid rules that we view the promise as a simple statement of reassurance, and that this is not a true commitment and she is not obligated to marry him.

Bava Metzia 67a-b

When someone mistakenly makes a concession in a business deal – a situation that the Gemara calls mechila be-ta’ut – must he abide by his word or can he claim that he is not responsible for something that he agreed to by mistake? The Gemara (on daf 66b) discusses Rav Nachman‘s position on this question, based on his ruling that someone who sells his date crop before the fruits have developed can back out of the sale, since en adam makneh davar she-lo ba la-olam – a person cannot sell something that does not yet exist. Nevertheless, Rav Nachman agrees that if the purchaser takes the fruit we do not force him to return them, since the owner agreed to the sale, albeit mistakenly.

On our daf, Rava tells that when he was studying with Rav Nachman, he wanted to challenge this ruling based on the law of ona’ah, but Rav Nachman realized what he was about to ask and said “but aylonit disproves your point.” The Gemara explains that Rava wanted to argue that even if a person agreed to pay an unreasonable price for something (the case of ona’ah), Jewish law does not allow him to make that mistake, and the sale is recalled. In response, Rav Nachman referred to a case of aylonit – a woman who never matures physically, and whose marriage is consequently annulled – whose erstwhile husband retains some of the agreed upon financial benefits of their marriage.

From the detailed discussions in the Gemara – mainly in Masechet Yevamot – it appears that an aylonit suffers from a genetic defect that does not allow her to have children.  This is a different categorization than an akarah – a barren woman – whose physical and sexual development is ordinarily normal, but cannot have children because of some other deficiency or impediment. From those descriptions it appears that an aylonit can be recognized by certain unique physical traits, including a lack of secondary sex characteristics like pubic hairs. Furthermore, it appears from the Gemara that there are different types of aylonit, ranging from women who have an overabundance of male hormones to those who suffer from Turner syndrome, where only one X chromosome is present and fully functioning. Approximately 98% of all fetuses with Turner syndrome spontaneously abort; the incidence of Turner syndrome in live female births is believed to be about 1 in 2500.

Bava Metzia 68a-b

The Mishnah on today’s daf discusses a situation where a wholesaler gives a quantity of fruit to a retailer, and they agree that the retailer will sell the fruit and they will share in the profits. The Mishnah teaches that under certain circumstances this can present a problem of ribit – of forbidden interest. In a case, for example, when the retailer guarantees to pay the wholesaler for part of the fruit and pay a percentage of the profits that he makes, as well, he is effectively accepting a loan from the wholesaler and paying back more than he received. The Mishnah’s suggestion is that the retailer should get paid as a laborer so that his relationship with the wholesaler will be that of an employee rather than a borrower.

The Gemara quotes a baraita that explains the Mishnah’s intent – that the retailer should be paid as a laborer – means that he should be paid as a po’el batel – an unemployed laborer, a term that Abayye defines as 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.
Tosafot suggest that it is the amount that someone who works hard and earns a high wage would be willing to accept in order to rest and not to work at all.

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.

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.