Talmud pages

Bava Kamma 40

Competition and collaboration.

This tractate has been a challenging one, with complicated legal disputes and halakhic back and forth about the intricacies of the appreciation and depreciation of oxen, the different kinds of damage that animals and fires and other things can cause, and so much more.

It’s in a tractate like this that the talmudic rabbis’ towering intellects are on full display. And yet sometimes we get the most charming reminders that these towering intellects were, in fact, human, and sometimes they just … need a minute.

Rava was praising Rav Aha bar Ya’akov before Rav Nahman, saying that he is a great man.

Rav Nahman said to him: When he comes to you, bring him to me. 

Rav Aha bar Ya’akov and Rav Nahman were contemporaries, both members of the third generation of Babylonian Amoraim, later sages of the Talmud. Rava was a generation younger, and the student of Rav Nahman. In this story, then, we see a student praising a different sage to his own teacher. At this point, it’s hard to know whether Rav Nahman’s response — I want to meet this guy! — is meant to be competitive (“I’ll show you”) or whether it represents genuine excitement to meet another great Torah mind. Either way, the meeting was arranged.

When Rav Aha bar Ya’akov came to him, Rav Nahman said to him: Ask me something.

He asked him: If an ox belongs to two partners, how do they pay the ransom? If this one pays the ransom and that one pays the ransom — the Merciful One requires one ransom, not two ransoms. If this half the ransom and that half the ransom, the Merciful One requires a full ransom, not half a ransom. 

The Talmud doesn’t depict any kind of initial greeting or pleasantries, just Rav Nahman insisting that Rav Aha bar Ya’akov test his knowledge the minute he enters the room. Rav Aha complies, with a particularly complicated question: How do we enact the Torah’s requirement that the owner (singular) of a goring ox pay the full ransom for the victim of the goring when the ox actually has two owners? If each is obligated to pay a full ransom, then is a double ransom actually paid? Or is a single ransom paid, but split into two half payments? (Fun fact: Eight hundred years later, Maimonides ruled that each owner was required to pay a full ransom for the harm caused by the ox. But we’re not there yet.)

Rav Aha bar Ya’akov follows up his first question with a rapid-fire multi-part second question:

While Rav Nahman was sitting and pondering this, he asked: We learned: The court repossesses property from those liable to pay their valuations. It does not repossess from those liable to bring sin-offerings and guilt-offerings. What about those liable to pay ransom?

Since it is atonement, is it similar to a sin-offering and a guilt-offering, which a person treats seriously, and it does not need to repossess from him? Or perhaps since he is required to give to another, it is a financial liability and he does not consider it an obligation toward the Most High, and he does not treat it seriously; and it needs to repossess from him, as he might not pay it?

Alternatively, since he did not sin but it is his property that caused the damage, he does not treat the matter seriously, and the court needs to repossess from him (because he is unlikely to pay of his own volition).

Again, the Talmud doesn’t tell us whether this complicated question is itself a demonstration of intellectual prowess or an expression of genuine enthusiasm. And indeed, that uncertainty continues with Rav Nahman’s answer: 

He said to him: Leave me alone! I am estagar on the first.

As Jastrow notes, the word estagar can either mean to be engrossed or to be stumped. The medieval commentator Rashi understands Rav Nahman to be saying he doesn’t know the answer. Following Rashi, we can read this entire story as a competition between two teachers for perceived brilliance and the praise of their students. 

But I want to leave space for the alternative reading: Two teachers, experts in their fields, who are the most outstanding teachers of their respective regions (which is both great in terms of accolades and potentially isolating for intellectual equals, especially in the days before the internet) are simply excited to meet each other and talk through all the complicated questions they’ve been pondering. Rav Aha bar Ya’akov is so thrilled that he spills over with questions, Rav Nahman so engrossed that he is mesmerized by the very first question posed. Torah doesn’t have to be a competition; it can be a celebration of collaboration, closeness and the sheer joy of learning together.

Read all of Bava Kamma 40 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on December 12th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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