Masechet Bava Metzia 83a-89b

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16 Jul 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 83a-b

Most of the laws that regulate relationships between employer and employee are discussed in the sixth perek of Masechet Bava Metzia. The seventh perekha-Socher et ha-Poalim – which begins on today’s daf, focuses on the rights of the worker as regulated by the Torah or by common practice in the community, e.g. the right that a worker in the field has to eat the fruit that he is harvesting (see Devarim 23:25-26).

The first Mishnah teaches that the employer must follow the accepted practice that is common in a given community – hakol ke-minhag ha-medina. The Gemara explains that even in situations where workers commonly were fed breakfast at the home of the employer, he cannot feed them breakfast in the field.

The Mishnah tells of Rabbi Yochanan ben Matya who instructed his son to hire workers, and his son offered to feed the workers in addition to their salary. Rabbi Yochanan ben Matya insisted that his son clarify the menu before the workers began the job, arguing that otherwise he could not possibly satisfy their demands. He argued that even a meal like that of King Solomon (see I Melakhim, or Kings, 5:2-3) would not suffice, since they are the descendants of the forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov.

The Mishnah appears to assume that a meal appropriate for the children of the forefathers must be even greater than that of King Solomon because we find – according to the Gemara’s understanding of the passage in Sefer Bereshit (18:7) – that the meal Avraham placed before his guests was a calf for each of the three travelers.

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel does not share Rabbi Yochanan ben Matya’s concern, ruling that in any case he would only be obligated to follow the accepted norms and traditions of the community with regard to feeding workers, and no more than that.

Bava Metzia 84a-b

Two of the great sages of Eretz Yisrael were Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish, first generation amoraim. The Gemara on our daf describes each of them, how they met and their unique relationship.

Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish – Reish Lakish – was, apparently, from a poor but important family. Because of the financial situation at home, Reish Lakish searched for employment and because of his great physical strength trained to become a gladiator.

Rabbi Yochanan was considered one of the most handsome men in the Jewish community in Israel, although it should be noted that looks and appearance is something that is dependent on cultural norms. Aside from stating that he was handsome, the Gemara also describes Rabbi Yochanan as being obese.

Once, when Rabbi Yochanan was swimming in the Jordan River, Reish Lakish jumped in and swam with him. Seeing his strength and determination as a swimmer, Rabbi Yochanan exclaimed “your strength would be put to better use were it devoted to Torah study!” to which Reish Lakish replied “your good looks would be put to better use on a woman!”  Hearing this, Rabbi Yochanan suggested that if Reish Lakish were to repent, Rabbi Yochanan would arrange for his sister – who was even more attractive than he – to marry Reish Lakish. Reish Lakish agreed, and became Rabbi Yochanan’s student (and brother-in-law) and eventually his peer and study partner.

The Gemara tells of a falling out between them that eventually led to a tragic end for both of them. Once the discussion in the bet midrash – the house of study – was focused on how to determine when a knife or a similar implement was considered completed, an important question with regard to issues of ritual purity. In the course of the discussion, Rabbi Yochanan said regarding Reish Lakish’s position “a thief knows the implements of thievery.” In response, Reish Lakish said that he had gained nothing from Rabbi Yochanan, since in his previous life as a robber he was also called “Rabbi.” Both walked away from this incident insulted and were never able to reconcile.

Many of the commentaries ask how Rabbi Yochanan could bring up this issue, since, as we have learned, it is ona’at devarim – it is forbidden to remind penitents of their former activities. While some suggest that a teacher is permitted to speak this way to his students, others suggest that this was a misunderstanding, and that Rabbi Yochanan was trying, in a humorous way, to suggest that given Reish Lakish’s background in thievery, he should be considered the expert with regard to knives.

Bava Metzia 85a-b

The passage in Sefer Yirmiyahu (9:11) asks “Who is the wise man, that he may understand this? And who is he to whom the mouth of the Lord hath spoken, that he may declare it? Wherefore is the land perished and laid waste like a wilderness?”

According to Rav Yehuda quoting Rav this pasuk teaches that neither the Sages – the “wise man” – nor the prophets – “he to whom the mouth of the Lord has spoken” – knew how to explain the destruction of the Temple and the loss of Jewish sovereignty over the land of Israel. It is only God Himself who is able to explain this historical challenge. In the very next passage (Yirmiyahu 9:12) we learn that the destruction took place because the Jewish people abandoned the Torah.

Rav Yehuda quotes Rav as explaining this as meaning that they did not recite the blessings over the Torah before learning.

This statement is understood by the commentaries in a number of different ways, but all agree that it should not be understood literally that they skipped the Torah blessings prior to study, rather as a metaphor for their attitude and approach to Torah study. The commentaries argue that it is clear, after all, that the generations prior to the destruction of the first Temple were involved in serious transgressions for which they deserved punishment, including idol worship, murder and sexual depravity.

Many understand the question to be why the merit of Torah study did not protect this generation from destruction. The Maharal explains that what the Gemara means when it says that they did not recite the blessing is that they separated the study of Torah from being a religious experience and a means to engage with God. Study of Torah as secular knowledge has no religious significance or holiness.

Bava Metzia 86a-b

The Gemara on today’s daf describes the circumstances that led to the passing of Rabbah bar Nachmani – one of the great Babylonian amoraim of the third generation. According to Rav Kahane, Rabbah died because of fear of the Babylonian government.

The story goes as follows: Word got to the Babylonian government that there was one Jewish leader who kept 12,000 Jews from paying taxes two months a year – one month in the summer and one month in the winter. The reference apparently, was to the Yarchei Kallah – the two months, Elul and Adar, when Rabbah invited the community to come and study in his yeshiva. It may be a reference to the common practice of freeing religious scholars from certain taxes and since many thousands of individuals came to study, they claimed tax relief based on their status as scholars.

The government sent soldiers to arrest Rabbah, who traveled from one community in Bavel to another in an attempt to avoid arrest, miraculously avoiding arrest and escaping from the authorities. He was standing next to a lake where he sat against a palm tree and began to learn. While learning he heard a heavenly dispute on the topic of ritual impurity, where God ruled that a doubtful case is tahor – ritually pure – while the heavenly scholars ruled that it was tamei – ritually defiled. Unable to reach agreement, they decided that the matter would be resolved by Rabbah bar Nachmani, and they sent a messenger to bring him. The angel of death could not approach him, since he was continuously learning Torah, so he brought a wind that rustled the branches and made him think that the soldiers had found him. At that point he decided that it was better to die than to be arrested by the government, allowing the angel of death to take his soul. His last word was the ruling that he made in the disputed case; he said “tahor, tahor.” A heavenly voice came out and proclaimed that Rabbah was, himself, pure, as symbolized by the fact that his final words were tahor.

The Shitah Mekubetzet suggests that perhaps this story was a dream that was shown to Rabbah close to his death, whose purpose was to assure him that his scholarship was valued in the heavens, and that he was being “called” to heaven and not dying a simple death.

Bava Metzia 87a-b

When walking through your friend’s orchard, would it be appropriate to pick fruits and eat them? Although our immediate reaction is that it would be forbidden to do so, the simple reading of the passages in the Torah that discuss this would seem to permit such behavior. The passages in Sefer Devarim (23:25-26) speak simply about someone who finds himself walking in his friend’s field or in his friend’s vineyard, and clearly permit him to sample the grapes or the grain. Nevertheless, the Mishnah on today’s daf (=page) teaches that it is only a field worker who is allowed to eat.

According to the Gemara, the source for this is the parallel between the word tavo in these pesukim and the same word that appears regarding paying a worker (see Devarim 24:15). The Me’iri suggests an additional reason, pointing out that when the pasuk talks about someone who comes into his friend’s vineyard, it sounds as though we are discussing someone who has permission to enter the vineyard, which would not be true of any passerby.

The biblical right that the worker has to eat while working is restricted to certain types of work. Thus, someone who is harvesting ripe fruit (e.g. grapes) can eat, or someone who is working with fruits that had been harvested (e.g. bundles of wheat), but are not “finished” in the sense that they have not been brought into the granary and prepared for tithing. If, however, someone is working in a field that is not yet ripe, he cannot eat from the fruit; similarly, the Torah only creates this obligation to the worker in crops that grow in the field. A farm worker who milks cows or prepares meat or cheese cannot eat from the produce, even though it is food and he is working directly with it.

Bava Metzia 88a-b

Who is obligated to tithe fruits and vegetables that are harvested?

As anyone who shops in fruit stores in Israel knows, the consumer can check to be sure that terumot and ma’asrot – tithes – were separated by the wholesaler or retailer before sale. It is, therefore, somewhat surprising to learn that only the farmer (or the homeowner with a garden) who harvests for the purpose of eating the produce himself, is obligated by the Torah to separate these tithes. Our practice of separating terumot and maasrot from produce that is harvested for commercial sale is only a rabbinic requirement.

Our Gemara quotes a baraita that asks why the markets of Bet Hino were destroyed three years prior to the destruction of Jerusalem. Its answer was that they were careful only with regard to the biblical requirements of tithes, saying that the passage in Sefer Devarim (14:22-23) discusses harvest and subsequent consumption of one’s own harvested fruit, thereby excluding a seller or a buyer from the obligation of separating terumot and maasrot.

Bet Hino was, apparently, the village that is referred to by the name Bethania, or Bet Chanan, just outside of Jerusalem, not far from the Mount of Olives. This village was destroyed in the very first days of the Great Revolt, while the siege and battle for Jerusalem lasted a lengthy period of time, explaining the baraita’s contention that Bet Hino fell three years prior to Jerusalem.

According to the Iyun Yaakov, the three years can be seen as middah k’neged middah – an appropriate punishment for their transgression, since a farmer is given three years to distribute the tithes that he separates. Since they did not take this law seriously, they were punished in accordance with the inappropriateness of their behavior.

Bava Metzia 89a-b

We have seen that the Mishnah (87a-b) teaches that a farm worker in the fields is permitted to eat as he harvests or performs other work. Our Gemara quotes a baraita that teaches that the employer can offer food or drink to the workers before they begin the harvest in order to limit the amount that they eat; similarly the workers can bring an appetizer to eat that will help them consume a large amount of fruit.

The question that our Gemara poses is whether the worker can roast the fruit in order to make it tastier when he eats. Although there are a number of baraitot that the Gemara quotes that seem to prohibit this kind of preparation, the Gemara rejects them as proof, arguing that it may not be intrinsically forbidden to roast the fruit, rather this may be a problem of bitul melacha – that an employee is not allowed to take time off from his work in order to prepare the fruit that he is permitted to eat. Thus, if a worker comes to the field with his wife or his children who are not working, perhaps he would be permitted to pick a fruit intending to eat it himself – a right expressly granted to him by the Torah – and hand it to his wife or to his child to prepare for him. The Gemara does not succeed in finding a decisive proof to resolve this question.

According to the Rambam, if a worker who was hired to harvest a field takes time off from his work to prepare fruit that he picked by roasting it, for example, not only is he stealing time from his employer, but he also is stealing the fruit, since he is only allowed to eat while he is working. Once he stops harvesting, he loses his right to eat from the fruit.

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.