Bava Kamma 19

The devil in the details.

For my three small children, we have a simple rule: Dessert is served on Shabbat and special occasions. The devil, however, is in the details we must constantly litigate, from how many times they can eat dessert on Shabbat to what counts as a special occasion. (Recently they persuaded me that vaccination day counts — both for the two children who were in fact vaccinated that day and the one who had been vaccinated the previous week.) 

mishnah on today’s daf presents another simple rule:

For what damage caused with the tooth (i.e. eating) is an animal deemed forewarned? Eating food that is fit for it. The domesticated animal is deemed forewarned with regard to eating fruits and vegetables, but if it ate garments or vessels, the owner pays half the cost of the damage. 

If an animal eats what we expect it to eat, then the owner should have taken measures to prevent the damage and must pay full cost. If it eats something not typically part of its diet, like a shoe or a spoon, then the owner pays half.

Naturally, this leads to a more intricate discussion of what qualifies as typical food for an animal and what does not. The Gemara wades into this by ruling on a few borderline cases:

A cow that ate barley, a donkey that ate vetches, a dog that licked oil or a pig that ate meat — the owner must pay the full damage. 

Cows typically eat grass, not barley. Donkeys typically eat hay, not vetches. But if they were really hungry or, as Rav Pappa subsequently puts it, “under duress,” they might choose to. (Speaking only for my dog, he would not need to be placed under any duress to lick oil — or any number of other atypical canine foods.) Therefore, in these circumstances, the owner is still responsible for paying full damages. The Gemara cannot consider every animal and every potential food, so it gives us a principle: Foods eaten under duress are also considered typical foods. The rest is left for judges to determine. Though one is left to ponder: Isn’t any food an animal eats, then, either a typical food or a food eaten under duress?

That’s only the beginning. Things become even more complicated when we consider compound damages, such as the case of an animal that ate food belonging to someone else and destroyed the vessel in which the food was stored. The Gemara brings two such examples; here’s the first:

A certain donkey ate bread and broke the basket. Rav Yehuda obligated the owner to pay the full cost of the bread and half the cost of the damage to the basket. But why? It is typical for a donkey to eat bread, but it is also typical for it to break the basket. In this case, the donkey ate the bread and then afterward broke the basket.

In response to this case, the Gemara expresses surprise that Rabbi Yehuda required the donkey’s owner to pay only half for the basket, since we would expect a donkey to tear apart a basket full of bread and therefore we might expect the owner to pay in full. But in this case, the Gemara concludes, the donkey ate the bread and afterward destroyed the basket for no apparent reason, which we would not expect. (There is a contrasting case, presented on the top of tomorrow’s daf, in which a donkey climbs a clay barrel to eat a turnip, damaging the barrel in the process. Rava requires the owner to pay the full cost for both the turnip and the barrel, since the damage of both was predictable, it being in the nature of goats to climb things for food.)

Next, the Gemara questions whether it is in fact typical for a donkey to eat bread at all. Here the rabbis are troubled because they have a beraita, an older rabbinic tradition, that suggests it is not:

The Gemara raises a contradiction from a beraita: If it ate bread or meat or a cooked dish, its owner must pay for half the cost of the damage.

Is this not referring to a domesticated animal? No, it must be discussing an undomesticated animal.

The beraita says an owner must pay only half damages when an animal eats bread, but this does not square with the case in which Rav Yehuda required an owner to pay full damages for a donkey that ate bread. The Gemara concludes that the beraita is talking only about undomesticated animals, which are far less likely to eat bread. Domesticated animals, it concludes, are forewarned with regard to bread consumption.

And so it goes. We’ll pause here, in part because we have arrived at the bottom of the daf, and in part because there really is no natural end to this discussion. A simple law becomes complex the minute it must be applied, and the best the rabbis can do is create additional guidelines and present cases to guide future legal deciders — like me, the next time my kids plead for cupcakes or my dog plunders their Halloween buckets.

Read all of Bava Kamma 18 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on November 21st, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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