Bava Kamma 101

Benches and chairs.

You are redecorating your kitchen and hire a carpenter to help you out. You have some wood that has been piled in your garage and this seems like a great opportunity to put it to productive use, so you give it to the carpenter and ask them to build you some chairs for your kitchen table. A few weeks later, the carpenter delivers benches instead of chairs. You are disappointed because this is not what you asked for, and so is the carpenter, who realizes that they probably won’t be compensated for their labor due to the error. And then there is the matter of what to do with the benches.

In our day, a mistake like this would be the carpenter’s to rectify as the error was theirs. More likely than not, they would have to purchase new wood and craft the chairs that they were contracted to deliver. But for the rabbis, the answer is not so straightforward, as we learn from a beraita which presents two possible paths for resolving the matter:

Rabbi Meir says: The carpenter gives the customer the value of his wood. 

Rabbi Yehuda says: If the value of the wood’s enhancement exceeds the carpenter’s expenses, the owner gives the carpenter the expenses. If the expenses exceed the enhancement of the wood, he gives him the value of the enhancement. 

Rabbi Meir treats this case according to the laws of theft. As we’ve learned, when a stolen object changes form, the thief takes possession and compensates the owner for its value at the time that it was stolen. If we apply this logic to our case, the carpenter keeps the bench and pays the original owner for the wood. The original owner is back where they started financially, except they have cash instead of wood. If they would rather have wood, they can use the money to buy some. The carpenter retains possession of the bench which they can now sell to recoup what they paid the original owner and, as a bench can be sold for more than the raw materials from which it is made, compensated for their labor (and potentially make some profit as well).

Rabbi Yehuda has a different take on the matter. He rules that the bench belongs to the original owner who must pay the carpenter for his work. Given that the carpenter did not produce what was asked for, the payment is not the original agreed upon price. Instead, we compare the carpenter’s cost to make the bench (i.e. their expenses) and the amount that the wood increased in value by being shaped into a bench. The customer pays the carpenter the smaller of the two.

When the increased value of the bench exceeds the cost to make it, the customer pays the carpenter for their expenses, so the carpenter does not lose money on the deal. The customer, meanwhile, can sell the bench which will recoup what they paid for the furniture that they didn’t want and earn something extra — leaving them ahead of where they started. 

On the other hand, when the cost to make the bench exceeds the increased value, the carpenter suffers a loss. The customer, who owns the bench, can choose to keep it or sell it, recouping that which they paid and, in the end, breaking even.

Both Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehuda acknowledge that the carpenter has made a mistake, yet both their approaches take into account the fact that the carpenter has put time and effort into the project and has a right to be compensated for their work. Both their solutions ensure the customer is protected from financial loss, but they do not — as we might in a modern setting — demand that the original order be fulfilled.

Read all of Bava Kamma 101 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 11th, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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