Talmud

Bava Kamma 42

From the south.

Today’s daf finds us in the midst of a debate as to whether or not one is liable if an innocuous ox (one that has not been forewarned) causes a woman to miscarry. Is it similar to a person causing a woman to miscarry, in which case the verse (Exodus 21:22) states clearly that one is liable? Or does the verse detailing the consequences of a goring ox (Exodus 21:28) exclude this instance? And if it is not excluded, does the consequence depend on whether other damage was incurred or the intent of the animal?

Following arguments for one outcome or another, we learn that Rav Haggai brings a tannaitic support in favor of one opinion:

When Rav Haggai came from the south, he brought with him a beraita [earlier rabbinic teaching] that supports Rav Ada bar Ahava.

We know that, for the Talmud, “the west” is the land of Israel and “the east” is Babylonia. What, however, is “the south”? Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Chajes, a 19th-century Galician Talmud scholar best known for writing an introduction to the Talmud, gives us some background: 

“We find ‘the south’ mentioned many times in the Talmud, and it requires an explanation … It says (Pesachim 70b) that Yehudah ben Dortai separated from the sages and settled in the south, because he held that the chagigah offering supersedes Shabbat, and ‘need we arise and explain the reasoning of those who separate themselves?’ Rashi explains this means separated from the sages. Rabbi Yehudah established a large yeshiva to teach students, and it was very hated by the sages … the Talmud relates that even though the southerners were hated by the sages of Babylonia and the land of Israel, they would accept the good from among them, and they used the beraita brought from the south as support …”

The first center of Torah learning was Jerusalem and then, after the destruction of the Second Temple, Yavneh. After that, Babylonia became a center of Torah learning for a long period of time, even while there were scholars still in the land of Israel.

Rav Yehudah ben Dortai was a very early rabbi who lived during the time of the zugot (pairs), a period that predates even most of the tannaim who appear in the Mishnah. Due to a disagreement with the rest of the sages of his time, he moved to the south and began his own yeshiva. This was a minor outpost of learning, one that, as Rabbi Chajes mentions, comes up at various points in the Talmud. They were not viewed favorably by the rest of the rabbinic establishment. Indeed, in the Jerusalem Talmud, they are called “arrogant and ignorant of Torah” more than once. 

And yet, Rabbi Chajes goes on to tell us, the sages of the Babylonian Talmud accepted a beraita known (presumably only) to this community as support for an opinion being debated. They were willing to admit that Torah can be elucidated from unexpected places, even from places that are suspect.

In a world as fractured as ours, a world where different opinions tend to be silenced or ignored, this story is a powerful reminder to listen to the words of those with whom we differ, as we may find a gem of truth, a perspective we had not yet considered, a nuance that is worthy of adding to our understanding of the world.

A seemingly inconspicuous description on our daf — “from the south” — holds an entire story within it, one that asks us, ironically, to ignore the source, which is generally considered unreliable, and take the text at its face value as something that can help us better understand a debate.

Read all of Bava Kamma 42 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on December 14th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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