A case came before Rav Toviya bar Mattana for judgment: Reuven had slapped Shimon and Shimon was seeking damages. (In the Gemara they are nameless, but I’ve given them names to make it easier to follow the story.) There is a mishnah we will encounter later in Bava Kamma, quoted on our page, which states that the penalty for a slap is one sela. Rav Toviya is ready to rule in Shimon’s favor, but wants to get the fine right, so he asks Rav Yosef:
Is the sela we learned about in the mishnah the Tyrian sela, or the provincial sela?
Currencies in the ancient world were not standardized. A sela minted in one time and place might be worth something quite different than a sela elsewhere. More broadly, the question is: When the mishnah sets fines, which currency does it use?
A Tyrian sela, it turns out, is worth four dinars while a provincial sela is worth only half of a dinar — an eightfold difference. After a brief discussion, the Gemara gives us the answer specific to this case and also a general guideline:
Rav Yehuda says that Rav says: All references to coinage mentioned in the Torah refer to Tyrian coinage, whereas all mentions of coinage in the statements of the sages refer to provincial coinage.
And so, when Rav Toviya renders his verdict, damages are set at a provincial sela, or half a dinar.
Talmudic stories, as we have come to learn, are rarely simply about bare facts, such as which kind of sela is imposed as a fine for slapping, so now we see how this plays out. While he is pleased to have won the case, Shimon is not thrilled to learn that the damages will be so meager. Frustrated, he declares:
Since the fine is only half a dinar, I do not want it; let him give it to the poor.
Whether he was expecting four dinars or simply felt that a half a dinar was not worth the bother, we will never know. But the reply is certainly bitter — and quickly regretted. A short while later, Shimon changes his mind and seeks to claim the damages he had previously spurned:
Let him give it to me, and I will go and sustain myself with it.
It seems that Shimon’s angry pride was misplaced and he actually could make good use of a sela, even if it is only a provincial sela. Alas, Rav Yosef informs him:
The poor have already acquired it! And although there are no poor people present in court to acquire it, we are the hand of the poor.
From Rav Yosef, we learn that the court has the power to act on behalf of the poor. Even if the half dinar had not yet been given to them, legally it was already considered to be in their position. Shimon is out of luck. Did Rav Yosef necessarily need to rule in this manner? Couldn’t he have handed over the (measly) sela? Perhaps he was holding the line to protect the poor — as the court is empowered to do, even if it is only a provincial sela at stake. Perhaps he was giving Shimon a metaphorical slap of his own in response to Shimon’s poor attitude and manners. We’ll never know if Shimon learned the lesson, but we might now have an inkling about what sort of behavior led Reuven to slap Shimon in the first place.