Bava Kamma 29

Broken jugs and fallen camels.

Our daf begins in the middle of a beraita that depicts a dispute between Rabbi Meir and the rabbis:

If one’s jug broke and he did not remove its shards, or if his camel fell and he did not stand it up, Rabbi Meir deems him liable to pay for any damage they cause. The rabbis say that he is exempt according to human laws but liable according to the laws of Heaven.

If a person’s personal property is damaged in some way that makes it a danger to the public, Rabbi Meir holds that person financially liable for any damage that occurs from that broken property. But most other rabbis believe that there is no culpability that can be enforced in a human court, though God is displeased. 

The Gemara expands on this dispute, adding in exceptional cases: In a case where a person left a stone, knife or other burden on top of a roof and it was blown off by a normal wind and caused damage, the rabbis would agree with Rabbi Meir that the owner of those objects is liable for the damage they had caused. But if a person had clay pitchers drying out on a roof (a typical thing to do) and these pitchers, which would not normally be blown away by the wind, were caught up in an unusually strong gust and caused damage, even Rabbi Meir would agree with the other rabbis that the owner is exempt from financial liability, as this scenario could not reasonably have been anticipated.

The Gemara then returns to the discussion of a mishnah (Bava Kamma 3:1) that was first quoted on 28a:

If one’s jug broke in the public domain and someone slipped in the water or was injured by the shards, the owner is liable.

Rabbi Yehuda says: If the owner acted with intent, he is liable. But if he acted without intent, he is exempt.

The Gemara has earlier assumed that the first, anonymous opinion in that mishnah is that of Rabbi Meir, who holds that there is liability, regardless of intent. So now we have the beraita and the mishnah, both of which place Rabbi Meir in disagreement with his colleagues. In both cases, Rabbi Meir is more likely to pronounce the owner liable for damage caused by broken items. But why, exactly, do they disagree? This is further explored in the sugya and the answer turns on a question of the precise line between accident and negligence, which is sometimes difficult to distinguish.

On a deeper level, this sugya, at its core, is about our responsibilities toward one another. Is blame solely a matter of intent to harm, or should we be held accountable for harm even when we did not mean to do it? These questions are deeply alive in the modern world, and the rabbis of the Talmud, too, struggled and disagreed about them. 

Read all of Bava Kamma 29 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on December 1st, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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