Talmud

Bava Kamma 22

Piping hot cake.

We start with a mishnah:

With regard to a dog that took a cake that had been baked directly on hot coals, and went to a stack of grain to eat it, and it ate the cake and at the same time ignited the stack of grain with a coal that it had taken along with the cake, the owner of the dog must pay the full cost of the damage for the cake, and he must pay for half the cost of the damage to the stack of grain.

This dog (let’s call him Fido) has done two forms of harm: He has stolen a cake off the coals and, by putting the piping hot cake on a pile of dry grain, caused a destructive fire. The mishnah says the owner must pay the full cost of the cake and half the cost of the burned grain.

The Gemara on today’s daf brings this mishnah into conversation with a dispute between Rabbi Yohanan and Reish Lakish about a fire that spreads beyond where it has been kindled and destroys property. Rabbi Yohanan says that liability for damage done by this fire is like liability for destruction caused by shooting an arrow. Since an arrow’s eventual landing point is difficult to determine and blame is hard to attribute, the archer is liable for only half the cost of the damage it causes. Reish Lakish, the Gemara clarifies, compares a fire to a goring ox that has a mind of its own and is not directly controlled by its owner – this status, though, holds the owner completely liable. Rabbi Yohanan, however, rejects this comparison between fire and a goring ox, and holds that the one who ignites the destructive flame is responsible for paying only half damages, like for destruction caused by an arrow.

The problem, for the Gemara, is that this mishnah about Fido makes perfect sense according to Rabbi Yohanan’s opinion. Why? Because Rabbi Yohanan says that fire is like an arrow, for which one is only liable for half the cost of damages, and that is what our mishnah rules about the fire set by Fido. But for Reish Lakish, who says that one is liable for the full cost of damage done by fire, this mishnah, which requires only half damages be paid, doesn’t make as much sense. This must be explained.

The Gemara always assumes that Amoraim like Reish Lakish cannot possibly hold positions that contradict the Mishnah, so the sugya offers us a reading of the mishnah that would accord with Reish Lakish’s view on culpability for accidental fires: Actually, says the Gemara, Reish Lakish would read this mishnah as describing a case in which Fido threw the cake onto the stack of grain, rather than placing it directly onto the stack. That is why Fido’s owner must pay the full cost of the cake but only half the cost of the burned grain — as the grain damage is the result of throwing the cake, a motion that, like that of an arrow, is hard to predict. If Fido had placed the cake on the grain, Reish Lakish might argue, the owner would be responsible for full damages. 

Rabbi Yohanan, says the Gemara, has to do less work to make sense of the mishnah according to his own ruling. He can read it as follows: The mishnah’s case is where Fido steals the piping hot cake and places it directly onto the pile of grain, so the owner is liable for the full cost of the cake and half the cost of the entire pile of grain, because (in Rabbi Yohanan’s view) fire is like an arrow in that its path is not fully predictable, so the owner pays only half damages. 


The Gemara continues on with offering more similar cases in an attempt to understand liability when animals set fires and to better understand the distinctions between Rabbi Yohanan and Reish Lakish’s positions, but we’ll pause here. In the morass of financial law that comprises so many parts of Nezikin, it can be easy to read for comprehension and lose track of delight. But this case, and so many of the surrounding cases of leaping goats and clumsy camels, is funny.

We ought not lose track of the slapstick humor of the dog running through the scene, filching food from the stove, and then tossing that likely too-hot food onto a dry stack of grain, with disastrous results. We can imagine our sages using these cases to better understand and expand Torah, yes — but that does not foreclose our imagining them laughing as well. 

Read all of Bava Kamma 22 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on November 24th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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