Bava Kamma 116

Prison break.

One of the many rich topics under discussion on today’s daf is whether someone who makes an agreement can then declare they were not serious and insist that the agreement is not binding. 

In discussing this possibility, the Talmud today quotes a beraita, an earlier tradition, that describes a potentially relevant case: 

Where one was fleeing from prison and there was a ferryman before him and he said to him: “Take this dinar and take me across,” the ferryman may take only his wage. 

The Gemara explains:

Apparently, he may (later) say to him: “I was fooling with you.”

From context, it is clear that taking a ferry normally costs substantially less than a dinar, but the desperate escapee offers an abnormally large sum. Should the ferryman take this offer seriously? The beraita insists that because the sum is so unbelievable, the escapee who makes the offer has room to later rescind it with the ancient equivalent of, “I was just kidding.” The ferryman should therefore only expect a standard wage.

But the beraita continues by offering some some additional nuance: 

And if he said to him: “Take this dinar as your wage and take me across,” he gives him his wage in the full amount.

In this case, where the escapee adds the specific language of “as your wage,” he is required to pay the ferryman the entire dinar. But why? That’s the exact question the Talmud next asks.

Rami bar Hama said: It refers to the case of a trapper who scoops fish from the sea and he can say to him: “You have caused me a loss of fish worth a dinar.”

According to this later rabbi, the second clause of the beraita describes an encounter not with a ferryman, but with a fisherman. In this case, if the escapee states that he will pay the man his wage (which is apparently much higher than that of a ferryman), then he is obligated to actually do so. 

Ultimately, then, Rami bar Hama draws a distinction not between the language used to make the deal but between two different kinds of workers: One whose job is to ferry people across the river, for whom this payment would be payment for him doing his job; and one who has a different job, fishing, for whom the payment would be payment for him to stop doing his job and help the escapee out. And that’s a helpful distinction to draw given that the beraita treats each case differently. 

But while Rami bar Hama’s focus is on the worker who is being promised payment, let’s devote some of our attention to the one promising payment. According to the Talmud, the promiser is an escapee from prison. His urgency is likely a factor in offering the ferryman an enormous sum of money to cross the river. If I’ve learned anything from watching The Shawshank Redemption numerous times, it’s that hunting dogs can’t track scent over moving bodies of water. Crossing a river may be not just a part of the escapee’s journey but a crucial way to avoid detection. 

Notice that the rabbis describe him as an escapee from prison as the apparently value-neutral background to a discussion of promissory language. But for the rabbis, what matters is the language he uses and the person he asks to ferry him across the river — not the nature of his crime, whether he was justly convicted, or whether the authorities are going to come after him, putting the person with the boat in their crosshairs. 

In a world where the empire’s prison system was seen as fundamentally unjust, perhaps the rabbis did not stigmatize being incarcerated. Instead, what mattered was behaving correctly with those around you, paying them what you actually owe them, and taking the time to contract clearly with them, even during your urgent escape. 

Read all of Bava Kamma 116 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 26th, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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