Bava Kamma 103

Even as far as Medea.

A mishnah on today’s daf states:

One who robs his friend of an item worth at least one peruta and swears falsely to him (that he did not take it, and then later wishes to repent) must bring payment even as far as Medea. The robber may not give the payment to the victim’s son, or to his agent, but he may give it to an agent of the court. And if the victim dies, the robber returns it to his heirs.

The robber in this case has committed two transgressions: he stole and he swore falsely. Both sins are forbidden by the Ten Commandments, the laws that form the very foundation of a just society. Interestingly, the Gemara tells us that a robber who stole but did not swear falsely does not need to go to any length to repay the victim. But in a case of theft and false oath, the robber must not only make restitution, but he must do it face to face, even if the victim has moved far away to Medea, in the Persian Empire. Why would this be necessary?

One suggestion comes from Rashi, who explains: “There is no atonement for (the robber) until he returns it to the actual person from which he stole.” According to Rashi, the reason the robber needs to do this is to achieve atonement for his sin. Those who have studied the laws of repentance know that even if a person prays for forgiveness to God, their sins are not wiped clean until they have sought forgiveness from the person they wronged. 

Maimonides looks at the matter from the perspective of the victim. “The rationale is that once the robber took a false oath, the owner has despaired of the return of his property and will not demand it again.” (Mishneh Torah, Robbery and Lost Property 7:9) Maimonides considers the issue of despair that we encountered earlier in this tractate, positing that if the robber swore falsely that he didn’t steal from the victim, the owner will by now have given up any hope of its recovery. Therefore, the robber not only needs to provide restitution, but admit to — and apologize for — the false testimony. But why does all this need to be done face to face (or if the victim cannot be reached, before the court)? 

In exploring this matter, Rabbi Jay Kelman observes: “Reconciliation requires a face-to-face meeting. This is an especially important message for our generation where texting, Facebook, email, and a host of other social media I have never heard of have replaced face-to-face discussion.” 

True restitution cannot be accomplished without looking the person that has been wronged in the eye and saying, “I stole, I lied about it, and I’m sorry.” Anything short of that leaves both the perpetrator and the victim without something they need to move on: The perpetrator can’t achieve full atonement, and the victim will go on believing that the stolen item is lost forever. 

Read all of Bava Kamma 103 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 13th, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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