Bava Kamma 15

Triple proof.

Given the distinctions the rabbis often draw between men and women, it’s somewhat surprising to discover that the mishnah on yesterday’s daf regarded men and women identically when it comes to assessing damages. On today’s daf, the Gemara cites three potential sources of this rule: Numbers 5:6 (“When a man or woman shall commit any sins of a person”); Exodus 21:1 (“And these are the civil laws that you shall set before them” — them, that is both men and women; and Exodus 21:29 (which references a forewarned ox and then says, “And it killed a man or a woman.”)

Are all three of these sources necessary? Actually, the Gemara answers, they are: 

And all are necessary, as had it taught us only the first, (one might have said that it) is there, as the Merciful One had pity upon (a woman) in order that she should achieve atonement. But with civil law, (one might say that for) a man, who is involved in business dealings, yes, but to a woman, no.

The Gemara interprets the first prooftext, from Numbers 5:6, as equalizing men and women when they commit sins that require atonement. One might have thought then that in civil law — and especially in business, where women were not generally involved in ancient times — the equality doesn’t hold. That explains why the second and third citations are necessary, to prevent that erroneous inference. But then why is the first necessary? 

Had it taught us only civil law, (one might have said that this is) in order that she should be sustained. But with atonement, (one might have said that) a man, who is obligated in mitzvot, yes, but a woman, who is not obligated in mitzvot, no.

If only the first source was taught, one might have thought that women were treated equally in civil law because they might need to be involved with business matters in order to sustain themselves, and if women weren’t treated as equals in that domain, people might be wary of transacting business with them. But in the religious domain, the Gemara worries that Jews might assume that a woman’s fewer obligations under halakhah might imply reduced penalties for religious transgressions. The first prooftext thus makes it clear that this is not the case and that men and women should be treated equally in that area too.

So if we need the first source to teach us that men and women are equally liable for infractions of religious law, and the second to teach us that they are equal when it comes to assessing damages, why do we need the third text?

And had it taught us only these two sources, (one might have limited equality) here due to atonement, and there due to sustenance. But with regard to killing, (one might have said that only for killing) a man, who is obligated in all mitzvot, yes to pay a ransom; but a woman, no.

And had it taught us only a ransom, (one might have thought that this is) because there is a loss of life, but in these first two, where there is not a loss of life, I would say no, (a woman is not included). Accordingly, it is necessary. 

The first two texts show that men and women who violate religious and civil laws incur similar penalties. The third text is needed to teach that when a woman is a victim in a civil case, she’s entitled to compensation just as a male victim would be, even if her obligations under halakhah are fewer. Moreover, by including this example where a woman or man is killed — an extreme outcome — it emphasizes that equality applies, even in the most serious of cases.

It’s refreshing to see the rabbis treat men and women equally in all of these categories, regardless of whether they’re transgressor, malfeasor or injured party, and regardless of the type of law violated. And not only that, they do so in such a comprehensive way that they rely on three distinct verses from Torah to establish their point.

Read all of Bava Kamma 15 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on November 17th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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