Talmudic pages

Bava Kamma 18

Dung in the dough.

An iconic scene in the 2011 film “The Help,” based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett, features abused maid Minny, played by Octavia Spencer, serving a chocolate cream pie with a very special brown ingredient to her former employer, Miss Hilly. Unlike Minny’s pie, the dung on today’s daf lands accidentally in dough.

To understand how we get there, we need to look at a question asked by Rava on today’s daf which follows on a rule we learned yesterday, that the owner of an animal that scatters pebbles must repay half the cost of any damage caused by the projectiles: 

Rava raises a dilemma: Is there forewarning for pebbles, or is there no forewarning for pebbles? Do we liken this to goring? Or perhaps it is a subcategory of trampling?

If an owner has been forewarned three times that an animal has a tendency to scatter pebbles, asks Rava, should they be required to pay full damages? Or is scattering pebbles always a “half-price” penalty, even if the animal was prone to it and the owner warned repeatedly? In other words, is this sort of damage like the category of goring in that some animals are inherently more destructive than others and are deemed gorers (which suggests forewarning is possible)? Or is it like trampling in that all animals are equally likely to cause this damage, since all animals trample about equally (which suggests forewarning is not possible)? 

This turns out to be a difficult question. The Gemara attempts to find the answer in close readings of three beraitot (early rabbinic texts), the second of which is this:

Come and hear: If an animal dropped excrement onto dough, Rav Yehuda says the owner of the animal pays the full cost of the damage and Rabbi Elazar says he pays half the cost of the damage.

How does this relate to the question of whether an animal can become known for scattering damaging pebbles, requiring its owner to pay full damages?

What, is it (the beraita) not referring to a case where the animal has done so three times? And it is with regard to this that they disagree, as one sage holds that there is forewarning for pebbles, and one sage holds that there is no forewarning for pebbles.

The Gemara says that the sages of the beraita disagree because they are referring to two different scenarios, one in which the animal habitually defecates into dough (requiring full repayment) and one in which it does not (requiring half repayment). This would suggest the same might be true for an animal scattering pebbles but, alas, this reading of the beraita is challenged.

No, (the beraita is only talking about an animal that defecated) one time. And they disagree with regard to the issue that is the subject of the dispute between Sumakhos and the rabbis.

On the previous daf, Sumakhos and the rabbis disagreed about whether scattered pebbles require full or half repayment. Rava is not looking to rehash that argument, so this beraita turns out not to be useful for his question about whether a pebble scatterer can be forewarned. There’s a little more back and forth about this beraita during which the Gemara questions whether this is really the correct reading of the beraita (which, if it’s rehashing an old argument, doesn’t teach us anything new), but ultimately the rabbis decide this teaching cannot answer Rava’s question and move on to the third and final beraita:

Come and hear: Rami bar Yehezkel taught that a rooster that extended its head into the airspace of a glass vessel and crowed in the vessel and broke it, its owner pays the full cost of the damage. And Rav Yosef said that the sages from the school of Rav say that if a horse neighed or a donkey brayed and the sound broke vessels, the owner pays half the cost of the damage.

To see exactly how the Gemara handles this beraita about animals causing damage by making loud noises, you’ll have to read on to tomorrow’s daf, but here’s the spoiler: This beraita also fails to resolve Rava’s dilemma. In fact, the issue remains unresolved for the Talmud. The rabbis aren’t able to determine if an animal can develop a reputation as a rock scatterer and therefore require its owner to pay the full cost of damage caused by projectile pebbles. Without an answer, the rabbis leave it for a future generation to determine, another small reminder that the rabbinic project is not finished. In the meantime, however, the daf has given us an interesting window onto some of the more unusual challenges of animal husbandry.

Read all of Bava Kamma 18 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on November 20th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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