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Bava Kamma 20


If you’ve ever heard someone refer to gymnast Simone Biles as “the GOAT,” you might already know that in modern slang GOAT is an acronym for Greatest of All Time. Biles is the most decorated gymnast in history, having won, as of this writing, seven Olympic gymnastic medals and an astonishing 30 Gymnastics World Championships medals. 

On today’s daf we meet another gymnast, but this time it’s an actual goat. 

A certain goat saw a turnip on top of a clay barrel. It climbed and went up and ate the turnip.

It broke the barrel. 

This goat, unfortunately, did not have a professional gymnast’s grace and athleticism.

The case came before Rava, who was asked to rule on what the owner of the goat was required to pay the owner of the turnip and the barrel. As we’ve already learned, an animal’s owner is only liable to pay full damages for eating someone else’s property if the animal eats something that it usually eats, in a way that it usually eats. Otherwise, the rabbis find the owner partially liable, and require them to pay only half the cost of damages. 

Rava obligated the full damage for the turnip and for the barrel. What is the reason? Since it is typical to eat the turnip, it is also typical to climb.

Those who raise goats know they are nimble climbers, insatiable and not at all choosy about what they eat. They must therefore expect goats to get at any possible food in any possible way. While it is not normal behavior for a goat to just go around breaking clay barrels for no reason, climbing on top of a clay barrel to get at a turnip is, unfortunately, to be expected. Therefore, the owner had to pay full damages.

There’s something charming about rabbis sitting in court officially ruling that a goat will do just about anything in the quest for food. And it’s charming not only because it teaches us that when it comes to eating, goats really are the GOAT, but because it reminds us that in order to create laws that regulate the world, the rabbis have to understand the world: not only human behavior but the species-specific behavior of all the animals around them. And then to hold those animals and (and their owners) not to artificial standards of human behavior, but to their own reasonable standards of animal behavior. Because even though some people are the GOAT, goats aren’t people — and within the rabbinic legal system, that difference matters.

Read all of Bava Kamma 20 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on November 22nd, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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