Bava Kamma 43

A tale of two ifs.

By now, we’re quite familiar with Rabbi Yohanan and Reish Lakish. These brothers-in-law appear throughout the Talmud and often espouse opposing positions on matters of halakhah. Today, we see a difference of opinion between them that hinges on a single word: If.

By now we’re pretty familiar with damages caused by goring oxen, but this dispute hinges on the question of intentionality: Did the ox seem to intend to cause the harm or was the harm caused in the course of doing something innocuous, like scratching against a wall that fell over? The source of the dispute lies in two different ways of reading the verses from Exodus 21:29-30: “If, however, that ox has been in the habit of goring, and its owner, though warned, has failed to guard it, and it kills a man or a woman — the ox shall be stoned and its owner, too, shall be put to death. If ransom is imposed, the owner must pay whatever is imposed to redeem the owner’s own life.” 

For the purpose of understanding the dispute between Rabbi Yohanan and Reish Lakish, the important thing to know about this verse is that the rabbis read the second “if” as superfluous. The reasons are clearer in Hebrew, but in essence, the verse could have just as easily said, “A ransom is imposed, and the owner must pay.” We all know by this point that the rabbis love to interpret superfluous words and assign them meaning. Otherwise, why would they be in the text?

Rabbi Yohanan avoids imposing the death penalty on the owner of a habitually goring ox who kills someone by imposing a ransom instead. He interprets the word “if” at the start of the second verse as applying a ransom regardless of whether the ox killed intentionally or unintentionally.

This reading has implications for how we understand Exodus 21:32, which also has the word “if”: “But if the ox gores a slave, male or female, [its owner] shall pay thirty shekels of silver to the master, and the ox shall be stoned.”  

Here’s where we get a conflict between the two brothers-in-law: 

And according to Reish Lakish, let us say similarly that from the fact that he does not interpret (the difference between) “a slave” and “if a slave,” he does not interpret (the difference between) “a ransom” and “if a ransom” either.

The sages said: No. He does not interpret (the difference between) “a slave” and “if a slave,” he does interpret (the difference between) “a ransom” and “if a ransom.” 

Reish Lakish interprets the two “ifs” differently. In the case of a free person described in Exodus 21:20-30, he agrees with Rabbi Yohanan that the “if” is superfluous and it indicates the ox owner is liable regardless of intentionality. But in the case of killed slaves, the word “if” indicates liability only in the case of intentional deaths, but not unintentional ones. 

How does Reish Lakish wind up treating these two usages of “if” differently and their implications? The Gemara explains:

And what is different? “A slave” and “if a slave” are not written where payment (is stated). “A ransom” and “if a ransom” are written where payment (is stated). 

As a reminder, in the verse describing the case of a slave, the word “if” is necessary, but the rabbis decided the “if” is superfluous in the verse describing a ransom for the death of a free person.  Because the second one is unnecessary and doesn’t provide any grammatical glue, it’s fair game for serving another, interpretive purpose and provides a justification for Reish Lakish’s differential treatment of the two and the basis for finding liability in a slave’s death only if the act was intentional.

Thus concludes another round in the ongoing conflict between Rabbi Yohanan and Reish Lakish. On our daf, Rav Dimi asks Abaye, “Are you setting the statement of one man against the statement of another man?” But in truth, these two rabbis were able to generate enough debate on their own.

Read all of Bava Kamma 43 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on December 15th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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