Bava Kamma 31

Potter pileup.

On today’s daf, we find a mishnah that says:

Two potters were walking one after the other. The first one stumbled and fell. The second one stumbled over the first. The first one is liable for damage incurred by the second.

Here’s the straightforward read: A person falls, creating a potentially dangerous situation for others; if someone else trips over them and hurts themselves the person who fell is liable for any damage. 

As we have noted before, the Mishnah was designed to be preserved orally and is, therefore, terse, which made it easier to memorize and retain. But those who crafted the text left clues that help us fill in some details — two in particular, in this case.

The first is that the people the mishnah is talking about are not people, in general, rather they are potters. The second clue can be inferred from the context. A quick glance at the surrounding mishnahs reveals that the focus of this third chapter of Bava Kamma is not people who cause damage to others, but rather people and the stuff they carry causing damage.

Taking this into account, we can now paint a more detailed picture of the scene described in the mishnah:

Two potters are walking one after the other, carrying their wares. The one in front stumbles and falls, dropping their burden. The pottery falls to the ground and shatters. The second potter stumbles and falls over the first (or, perhaps, the mess that they caused), dropping what is in their hands and thereby losing valuable merchandise. In such a case, says the mishnah, the first potter is liable for the loss incurred by the second.

We’ve seen previously that in general there is a principle that accidents due to negligence incur liability, but not accidents that couldn’t reasonably be foreseen. So how is the first potter liable to pay damages to the second? Should they really have predicted and prevented their own accident?

One answer is yes, the first person has a responsibility to take care and stay on their feet while carrying pottery in public. Their failure to do so is careless and, as a result, they are at fault for the damage to their colleague’s pots. This, says the Gemara, is the opinion of Rabbi Meir whom the Gemara has stated elsewhere is behind anonymous positions in the Mishnah. 

But, as Rabbi Yohanan is quick to inform us, this is not necessarily so. Rabbi Yohanan explains that the plurality of rabbis, in opposition to Rabbi Meir, believe that a person who stumbles and falls is a victim of unfortunate circumstances (i.e. an accident) and exempt from responsibility for any damage that results. And, he argues, the mishnah could represent their opinion as well if we read it this way: Suppose the first potter fell and had time to stand up and clear the detritus out of the second potter’s way, but failed to do so. The first fall was an accident, sure, but the second was preventable and, in such a case, the rabbis hold the first potter liable.

Rav Nahman bar Yitzhak adds that the mishnah is in line with the rabbis even when the first potter falls and doesn’t have time to get out of the way in order to prevent the second potter’s fall. That is, when the first potter falls and doesn’t verbally warn the second to watch out. By failing to call out to the second, the first potter becomes responsible for the damage they incur.

Rabbi Meir’s position is clear: If your fall causes a person behind you to fall, you are responsible for all damages. The rabbis’ position is also clear: Accidents happen, and when they do, the person who falls is not responsible for the damage that ensues. The discussion suggests that the rabbis’ opinion has some reasonable limits: For the accident you may be exempt, but for failure to clear the way or warn others of your inability to do so, you are still on the hook.

Read all of Bava Kamma 31 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on December 3rd, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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