The mishnah that begins our daf deals with more cases of liability for personal property that causes damage in public spaces, including this one:
One who conceals a thorn or a piece of glass (in his wall adjacent to the public domain), or one who puts up a fence of thorns … he is liable to pay for the damage they cause.
This kind of concealment was a way of disposing of old sharp objects. The Gemara rules that the owner of the wall or the fence is only liable if these objects stuck out of the structure into the public domain. However, if the owner concealed them such that they were on the side of the wall facing his private property, he isn’t liable if someone else happens to be damaged by them.
The Gemara then presents the case of a person who concealed these objects in another person’s wall:
One who conceals his thorns or his pieces of glass in another’s wall, and the owner of the wall came and demolished his wall and it fell into the public domain, and the thorns or glass caused damage, the one who concealed them is liable.
The Gemara qualifies this ruling, explaining that the concealer is only liable for damages if he placed them in an unstable wall that he should have anticipated the wall’s owner would have to demolish.
After examining these cases of liability after the fact, the Gemara then records this tradition:
The sages taught: The early pious people would conceal their thorns and their pieces of glass in their fields and would dig to the depth of at least three handbreadths (roughly nine inches) in order to bury them, so that they would not obstruct (another person’s) plow. (Or perhaps so that the plow shouldn’t dig up the objects which could then hurt someone.)
These “pious people,” — in Hebrew, hasidim ha-rishonim — were early Pharisaic Jews who were scrupulous about their religious and ethical practices. Several cases of hasidim ha-rishonim going well beyond the letter of Jewish law are mentioned in the Talmud. For instance, in Mishnah Berakhot 5:1, these same early pious ones would meditate for a full hour before commencing with required prayer. Rather than worry about who incurs damages from disposed sharp objects after the fact, they took extraordinary measures to prevent this kind of damage from happening in the first place. The Talmud relates that their example was followed by some later talmudic sages:
Rav Sheshet would toss his thorns into fire. Rava would toss them into the Tigris River.
The hasidim ha-rishonim and those who followed their example committed themselves to “an ounce of prevention” to avoid the need for “a pound of cure.” Though such behavior is not required by the Talmud, it certainly seems exemplary.
Or is it? I read this passage in two ways. First, such pious behavior is fine for those few wishing to commit to it, such as the hasidim. For the rest of us “mere mortals,” the halakhah establishes minimal standards of responsible property ownership in public, including rules about who incurs liability for damages. Halakhah is about dealing with real human nature and behavior.
A second reading: The minimal standards and liability rules (begrudgingly?) exist because most people won’t try to be more scrupulous in how they behave. However, the ideal toward which everyone should strive is that of the hasidim. Halakhah, in this view, is about encouraging ideal human nature and behavior.
Is the Talmud conceding to the reality of human nature, or molding humans to be the best versions of themselves? Which is the “correct” reading? I see no need to choose. Jewish law establishes minima of proper behavior and legal remedies for improper behavior because we and the world are imperfect — so it must. At the same time, the Torah calls upon us la’asot hayashar v’hatov, to strive for excellence, if not some ideal of perfection, by doing what is upright and good. (Deuteronomy 6:18)
This balanced approach prevents us from falling into either of two behavioral and emotional traps: not trying at all to become better people beyond bare minimal standards; or trying so hard that we fail miserably or become not pious but insufferably self-righteous.
The Talmud ends our discussion by declaring that one who wants to be pious and act beyond the letter of the law should study the laws of damages (here we are!), or the wisdom of Pirkei Avot, or the laws of prayer in Tractate Berakhot. These tools are available for us to pursue a life of ideal pious behavior and character, and are praised for doing so. But we need to remember that the Torah’s realistic requirements are also sufficient.