Talmud pages

Bava Kamma 17

Scattered pebbles and pecked ropes.

Trampling refers to any damages that are caused by walking. If they are forewarned, an owner is expected to take precautions when their animals are out and about to prevent such damage and is on the hook to pay for any that their animals cause.

Trampling includes damage done by an animal’s feet (the part of the body that does the trampling) and also damages done by other parts of the body, as long as the damage happens in the course of walking. However, for damages that are not a direct result of walking, the owner of the animal is only responsible for half. For example:

If it transpired that pebbles were inadvertently propelled from under the animal’s feet and those pebbles broke vessels, the owner of the animal pays half the cost of the damage

Although the animal kicked up the pebbles in the course of walking, the animal did not directly cause the damage, so the owner is only required to pay half the value of the broken vessel.

Differentiating between when damage is caused directly by an animal and when it is indirect is not always black and white. The Gemara brings a number of other cases to explore the subtleties, for example:

The sages taught: In a case where chickens were pecking at the rope tied to a bucket and the rope was severed and the bucket fell and broke, their owner pays the full cost of the damage.

In this case, chickens have pecked a rope (an action for which their owner is considered forewarned). When the rope is severed, the bucket that is attached to it falls and breaks. Although the chickens did not break the bucket directly, the rabbis conclude that the chickens are directly responsible for the breakage and the owner must pay for the full cost. This is different from the case of the flying pebbles because the severing of the rope will definitely cause the bucket to fall and shatter, whereas it is possible that the flying pebbles land without causing damage.

As the conversation continues, Rava wonders, in determining liability for causing damage: Do we consider any action that normally leads to damage one that is liable? Or only actions that are most proximate to the damage? The Gemara suggests that there is a clear answer (the former) and cites the following teaching of Rabba:

If one threw a vessel from a roof and another came and broke it with a stick as it was falling, the one who hit it with the stick is exempt from all liability as we say to him that he broke a broken vessel.

Imagine a pair of hooligans have found pottery on the roof of a building and decide it would be fun to watch the pots fall and shatter on the ground. But one of them has an even better idea: What if you drop the vessels and I’ll try to whack them with a stick as they fall to the ground? At the trial, the one who dropped the vessels pleads innocence because it was his friend who smashed the items. The smasher admits to hitting the vessels with a stick, but notes that they were doomed to break as soon as they were dropped from the roof. 

Rabba rules that the dropper is accountable for the damage they caused and absolves the stick welding partner because the vessel that was already fated to be destroyed from the fall. Convinced? Rabba’s ruling does make a certain sense, but Rava is not sure. The Gemara reports:

The halakhah in this case is clear to Rabba, but it remains a dilemma to Rava.

And our conversation about damages, in all of its complexity, continues.

Read all of Bava Kamma 17 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on November 19th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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