Bava Kamma 26

The second-most dangerous animal.

According to the BBC, the most dangerous animal in the world is the mosquito which, beyond being incredibly annoying at cookouts, is a vector for a range of fatal diseases. The second-most dangerous is other humans. Across the world, humans deliberately kill over 400,000 other people annually (a heartbreaking number that does not include accidental death). 

In this tractate, we’ve been exploring what kinds of animals and animal actions are known to be dangerous to property and life. And on today’s daf, the mishnah turns to an explicit discussion of the second-most dangerous animal. 

A person is always forewarned: Whether unintentional or intentional, whether awake or asleep, if he blinded another’s eye or broke vessels, he must pay the full damage.

Remember that if an animal is considered forewarned, either because the species is innately dangerous or because an individual animal’s actions have made its danger clear, then the animal’s owner is liable to pay the full cost of any damage caused. The mishnah here includes human beings on the list of species that are innately dangerous to others. Even if someone causes accidental damage while asleep, they must pay the full cost of the damage they caused. 

Why would this be? If someone hadn’t meant to cause damage, why are they still liable for the full cost of damage? 

Hizkiyya says, and similarly, the school of Hizkiyya taught: The verse states: “Wound for wound” (Exodus 21:25) to render him liable for the unintentional (damage) just as for the intentional (damage); and for an accident just as for willingly.

There are other biblical verses which obligate one to pay for intentional damage, so the Gemara reads this particular verse as teaching a different principle: that one is liable for damage one causes whether or not it was intentional.

There are two ways we can think about the idea that a human is always considered forewarned. First, it centers the person who is harmed. Ultimately, regardless of the intentions of the one who caused damage, damage has been done and must be reckoned with. And that reckoning takes both the attention of the court and actual money. 

Second, it also reframes the person who has caused the harm. There is a strange power in believing that human beings are dangerous to each other.  If human beings are always considered dangerous, and are always fully liable for the harm that they cause, then we can imagine a world in which everyone is assessed for damage relatively often. How many times have you accidentally dropped something you were holding, or broken a plate while clearing the table? If being found liable for harm is a daily or weekly occurrence, then it’s not a life-altering, reputation-destroying event. And that means that the person who caused harm has less incentive to deny or shift the blame. If our legal system were built on the idea that human beings are always considered dangerousto each other, then acknowledging that fact is no big deal, but simply one step in a larger process of repair. 

Read all of Bava Kamma 25 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on November 28th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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