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Bava Batra 2

Good fences make good neighbors.

Welcome to Tractate Bava Batra, “The Final Gate,” the third and last talmudic tractate devoted to civil law — that is, financial arrangements between individuals. In many ways, it’s a continuation of its predecessors, Bava Kamma and Bava Metzia, which broadly concerned questions of property damage, renting, borrowing and sales. Bava Batra continues with related subjects — financial responsibilities of neighbors, joint property owners and laws of inheritance — but stands apart insofar as its laws are predominantly of rabbinic invention, rather than based in specific biblical verses. Case in point, the opening mishnah:

Partners who wished to make a mechitzah in a jointly owned courtyard build the wall in the middle. In a place where it is customary to build with non-chiseled stone, or chiseled stone, or small bricks, or large bricks, they must build with that. Everything is in accordance with regional custom.

When neighbors share a common courtyard and wish to divide the space, they build a wall down the middle. In the case of a disagreement about building materials, the mishnah prescribes that the neighbors build the partition out of whatever kind of brick or stone is customary. The mishnah continues with rules that align with a rudimentary sense of fairness: Each neighbor contributes an equal share of their acreage for the wall and each pays half the expense. Should the wall come down, the neighbors divide the rubble and assume the property line is located down the middle. Where it is not customary to build a wall — for example, in a wide open field rather than a courtyard — the neighbor who wants to build the wall must pay for it and place it entirely on their own property, with a marking that indicates that both the land and the materials belong to them.

Reading this mishnah, which makes so much intuitive sense, one wonders: Why do we even need the Gemara to comment? Nonetheless, the Gemara opens a complex discussion, starting the question of whether mechitzah in fact means wall, as the rest of the mishnah suggests, or any other kind of partition (perhaps pegs in the ground or a floating divider). In parsing that concern, the Gemara surfaces a deeper question that seems irrelevant to the mishnah itself: What is the purpose of the wall? A quoted beraita, another early rabbinic source, gives us one possibility: One neighbor can demand a wall be erected between a grain field and a vineyard to avoid the species from commingling, rendering them forbidden according to the biblical law of kilayim, which prohibits interplanting species. The wall, in this case, protects the monetary value of both crops, and if one neighbor refuses to help build it, they can be held responsible for their neighbor’s financial loss should the crops commingle.

That gives us a practical reason to build a wall between fields with different crops, but it doesn’t explain why someone might want to build a wall in a shared courtyard. In that case, the Gemara suggests, the predominant motivation for building is privacy. This leads the Gemara to a key question of today’s daf:

Is damage caused by sight called damage?

Is lack of privacy, in and of itself, a kind of damage? It’s easy to measure damages when a crop is destroyed. It’s more difficult to assess what one neighbor owes another when they stare over at the latter eating dinner or bathing their baby.

A series of attempts to prove that damage caused by sight is damage show just how complicated it is to measure human experience in terms of shekels. Here’s one example:

Come and hear: The residents of a courtyard can compel each to financially participate in building a gatehouse and a door to the jointly owned courtyard. Learn from this that damage caused by sight is called damage. 

This is not proof, as the damage of being exposed to the gaze of the general public is different.

The Gemara quotes a mishnah that states that when several residents share a courtyard, they can compel one another to share the cost of building a gatehouse and door which will prevent strangers in the street from looking into the courtyard. The Gemara suggests that this proves damage caused by sight is in fact called damage, but this is quickly rejected: Maybe only the gaze of strangers in the street is damaging, but the gaze of neighbors in the courtyard is not.

Sometimes, complexity in the Talmud is driven by a need to explain an abstruse biblical law. But in the case of Bava Batra, we arrive at complexity in a different way: The rabbis often begin with an apparently simple law that is of their own invention and then put it under a microscope, only to discover that the realities are far more convoluted. That’s why we will be here a while — just under six months, in fact. Welcome to Bava Batra.

Read all of Bava Batra 2 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 27, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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