Bava Kamma 53

A series of unfortunate events.

mishnah we encountered yesterday stated that if a person is digging a pit and the sound of the digging startles an ox who then stumbles forward into the pit, the owner of the pit is liable. What makes this a little different from some other pit cases we have encountered so far is that although the damage is done by the pit, the accident is caused by something else: the sound of the digging. 

The compound nature of the accident makes it difficult to assess who is responsible for the damages. In analyzing the situation, the Gemara on today’s daf brings a beraita that discusses an analogous compound accident:

It is taught: With regard to an ox that pushed another ox into a pit, the owner of the first ox is liable, and the owner of the pit is exempt.

Rabbi Natan says: The owner of the first ox pays half the amount, and the owner of the pit pays half the amount.

As with the startling sound that caused an ox to stumble into a pit, in this case too an ox falls into a pit because of a third mediating factor — a shoving ox. The majority of rabbis hold that the owner of the shoving ox is liable. Were it not for that push, the second ox would not have fallen into the pit and been injured. But Rabbi Natan says liability is shared, and the owner of the pit pays half the damages while the owner of the first ox pays the other half. This too makes sense: The shove would have done much less damage if there had been no pit present.

The Gemara brings a third compound case:

Rava says: If one left a stone at the opening of a pit (belonging to another person), and an ox came and stumbled on it and fell into the pit, we have arrived at the dispute between Rabbi Natan and the rabbis concerning the division of responsibility between them.

First, we had a loud sound that caused the ox to fall into a pit. Then it was another ox that pushed our ox into the pit. And now we have a stone that causes the poor ox to stumble into the pit. Once again, the rabbis hold that the person whose action or item started the accident — in this case the owner of the stone — is financially responsible. And once again, Rabbi Natan disagrees with his colleagues, arguing the payment should be split between the owner of the stone and the owner of the pit. After all, we can safely assume that in the absence of the pit, the ox’s stumble over the stone would have been far less damaging.

This is not the first time we’ve seen the rabbis hold the first actor in a cascade of unfortunate events responsible. Today’s daf is reminiscent of a discussion on Bava Kamma 17, where we learned that if a person threw a vessel off a roof and another person smashed that vessel with a stick in midair, it is the person who threw the vessel off the roof who must pay the damages — even though the stick-wielder is the one who actually broke the vessel. Likewise, today, although it is the pit that ultimately damages the animal, it is — according to the rabbis — the loud sound, shoving ox or unfortunately placed stone that causes the accident — and that’s where liability lies.

Is that a fair assessment? Rabbi Natan doesn’t think so. He seems to think it is heavy-handed to require the person loudly digging the pit (as if a pit can be dug softly!), the owner of the stone (it’s just a stone!), or the owner of the shoving (but not goring!) ox to pay full damages. And though Rashi sides with the rabbis on this one, many other early commentators side with Rabbi Natan in viewing the responsibility as shared in this cascade of unfortunate events.

Read all of Bava Kamma 53 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on December 25th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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