Bava Kamma 111

Restoring the thief’s honor.

On the second side of today’s daf, we begin the final chapter of Bava Kamma with this mishnah:

One who steals food and feeds it to his children, or who left a stolen item to them and then died, the children are exempt from paying (the victim of the theft). But if the stolen item was something that serves as a legal guarantee of a loan, the heirs are obligated to pay.

According to this mishnah, the children of a thief who benefit from what their father stole, either because he fed it to them or left it to them in his will, are in most cases not obligated to repay the original owner. There are exceptions because not all stolen objects are treated the same way by law. In the case of this mishnah, something like land that can serve as a legal guarantee (and can’t be consumed) must be returned. Nonetheless, it seems that most stolen items, by the time they reach the hands, or bellies, of the thief’s children, are theirs to keep. On the one hand, this makes sense — the children did not commit the theft. On the other hand, it feels unfair to the original owner. Why should the children get to keep what their father stole? Indeed, the Gemara’s discussion will further limit the cases in which the children are exempt from repaying what their father stole and passed on to them. Let’s look at just one example: 

Rav Hisda could have said to you: That mishnah is addressing a case in which the owners had already despaired.

This limits the application of the mishnah. Now, the children are only exempt from righting the wrong their father committed when the original owner has despaired of having their item returned. As we have seen previously, this is when the original owner gives up their legal claim to the item.

This is no small qualification, and there are more to come on today’s daf, but one of them stands out as noticeably personal:

But didn’t Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi teach Rabbi Shimon, his son, that this mishnah is not referring only to something that may actually serve as a legal guarantee? Rather, it is referring even to a cow that he plows with, or a donkey that he drives by directing it from behind, which the heirs are obligated to return because of the honor of their father.

Imagine the thief’s children regularly out in the sunshine, plowing with an ox that their father stole from his neighbor. This would be a constant public reminder of their father’s crime. So, says Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, even though there is a good legal case that the animal now belongs to the children, they should return it to the neighbor for the sake of their father’s honor. 

Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, of course, wrote the entire Mishnah. So why didn’t he just write this opinion into the original? Why did he teach it later specifically to his son? 

I can only speculate: Perhaps teaching this mishnah about fathers and sons to his own son made Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi see it in a new light. Perhaps when he cast himself as the father/thief and his own son as the beneficiary of that theft, he was dismayed and realized that he wouldn’t want his son to benefit — he would want his honor to be restored, even beyond the grave.

We often see Talmud as a project of generations adding to and enriching Jewish law. On today’s daf, we see that a single sage — and davka the one who knew the halakhah well enough to write it all down and create the foundational text of Jewish law — himself found the need for later amendment as a new life stage and new perspective added to his thinking.

Read all of Bava Kamma 111 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 21st, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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