Bava Kamma 119

Bava Kamma draws to a close.

Today we bring Tractate Bava Kamma to a close. It’s an end, but also not an end, because Bava Kamma is closely linked to the two tractates that follow, Bava Metzia and Bava Batra. Together, the three explore a wide variety of civil laws. In fact, they were likely originally one large tractate. 

For this reason, today’s daf doesn’t crescendo to a philosophical or poetic conclusion as some others do. Instead, it reads much like any other page, wending its way through a close analysis of the last mishnah. Thus, the final, unremarkable words of the tractate are:

Rav Yehuda says: Dodder (a plant belonging to the morning glory family) and green grain (or perhaps lichen) are not subject to robbery. But in a place where people are particular, they are subject to robbery. Ravina said: The city of Mehasya is a city where they are particular.

Two plants that grow like weeds are so common that taking them is not considered stealing — except in cities like Mehasya where they are intentionally cultivated.

We only have to back up a number of lines, however, to encounter a more sweeping discussion of robbery that feels much more like the kind of philosophical conclusion we are accustomed to at the end of a long tractate. Back on the first side of the daf, we find this meditation on a verse from the Book of Job:

“For what is the hope of the godless, though he profits, when God takes away his soul?” (Job 27:8). This is the subject of a dispute between Rav Huna and Rav Hisda. One says the soul of the robbed, and one says the soul of the robber.

Rav Huna and Rav Hisda interpret the word godless as thief and then ask who loses their soul in the wake of theft: the person whose property was stolen or the thief himself? I’ve been a victim of petty theft, and it was more upsetting than I would have anticipated. I was less disturbed by the loss of the decades-old bike from my garage, or the cheap watch lifted from my dorm room, or the even cheaper headphones snatched from my bag than I was by the feeling of violation. Every time I’ve been robbed, the world has felt like a less kind and safe place. It hurt my soul. On the other hand, one could argue that at least my integrity was not compromised by the theft. The same cannot be said for the thief, whose honor has been sullied. 

Both positions are discussed in the Gemara but Rabbi Yohanan is given the last word:

Rabbi Yohanan says: Anyone who robs another of an item worth one peruta it is as though he takes his soul from him, as it is stated: “So are the ways of every one that is greedy for profit; it takes away the life of the owner thereof.” (Proverbs 1:19)

In our journey through the Talmud, we’ve spent considerable time on solemn and ponderous subjects such as prayer, holiday observances, marriage and vows. In this tractate, we’ve been more focused on financial disputes between neighbors. We might suppose this is a less weighty discussion. How important is it, really, to decide whether a launderer may keep threads that come off a garment in the wash? (A real question on today’s daf.) Rabbi Yohanan’s teaching reminds us that these too are important discussions. In the end, more than money is at stake — it’s people’s very souls.

Read all of Bava Kamma 119 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 28th, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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