Bava Kamma 106

A thief and a liar.

One of my favorite things about the Talmud is how often the rabbis hold space both for robust disagreement and for the assumption that their opponents have well-considered positions. While we usually see this phenomenon play out more subtly, today it takes center stage.

Today’s daf describes a situation in which two people disagree about whether one of them is holding the other’s money. As we have already learned, in such a situation, the one who denies holding his friend’s money must make an oath to that effect. Here Rav Huna shares Rav’s opinion about what happens if it turns out that the person who took the oath was lying: 

Later, witnesses came (and testified that it was a false oath), but he is exempt (from paying back the money), as it is stated: “And the owner thereof shall accept it, and he shall not make restitution” (Exodus 22:10); once the owner received an oath, he no longer pays monetary restitution.

According to Rav, if you’re liable for making a false oath, you can’t also be financially liable for the subject of the oath — apparently that’s the Talmud’s version of double jeopardy.

It’s not difficult to imagine why this teaching was controversial — it leaves a person who is owed money without recourse to collect it, simply because the scoundrel who had the money took a false oath. The Talmud goes on to describe a scene in which Rav Nahman teaches this halakhah and Rav Acha bar Minyumi pushes back. Let’s look at just one piece of this complicated question and answer series: 

Rav Aha bar Minyumi raised an objection to Rav Nahman (from a mishnah on 108b): 

If the owner asks the bailee: “Where is my deposit?” and the bailee said to him: “It is lost,” and the owner said, “I administer an oath to you, (swearing that it’s lost),” and he said: “Amen,” and the witnesses (later) testify about the bailee that he consumed the deposit, then the bailee pays the principal. If he admitted on his own (that he swore a false oath), he pays the principal and the one-fifth payment, and a guilt-offering.

Rav Aha bar Minyumi notes that a mishnah we’ll encounter on Bava Kamma 108 insists that one who makes a false oath about a deposit is required to pay back what they stole — even though they’ve taken a false oath! This mishnah seems to contradict Rav’s teaching — so what’s going on?

Rav Nahman said to him: With what are we dealing here? Where one takes an oath outside of court.

For Rav, according to Rav Nahman, the only kind of oath that would make repayment moot is a formal oath taken within the beit din, or rabbinic court. Informal oaths just wouldn’t have the same legal force. 

As the daf continues, Rav Aha bar Minyumi keeps raising challenges, and Rav Nahman keeps answering him, defending Rav’s teaching by narrowing its scope, insisting that, if we understand both the mishnah and Rav’s opinion correctly, they do not contradict each other. 

But then the rabbinic discussion takes a turn, making explicit what is going on beneath the surface:

Rami bar Hama said to Rav Nahman: After all, you do not hold with Rav; why are you pledging yourself to Rav’s opinion?

Apparently, for all his work explaining Rav’s opinion, Rav Nahman doesn’t actually agree with him! So Rami bar Hama asks the obvious question: Why is Rav Nahman bothering to defend him?

He said to him: To clarify Rav’s opinion, as Rav explains the mishnah in this way.

Rav Nahman could have answered Rav Acha bar Minyumi’s many questions by criticizing his opponent, saying that Rav was ignorant of the mishnah or contradicted the mishnah, or otherwise had not fully considered the wealth of rabbinic teaching. After all, that would certainly make it easier for him to insist that his own opinion is the right one. And, at the very least, he could have said that he too disagrees with Rav. 

But instead, Rav Nahman articulates a value in understanding his opponent’s position — and not only that, but in being intellectually honest about what Rav’s opinion actually is. And in so doing, he offers a powerful lesson for us all.

Read all of Bava Kamma 106 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 16th, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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