Bava Kamma 56

Let God take care of it.

Yesterday we read a teaching of Rabbi Yehoshua in which he shared four offenses for which one is exempt from liability in human courts but will ultimately be held accountable by the Judge in Heaven. In other words, there are things for which the legal system cannot punish you, but God can. These are the four:

One who breaches a fence that stood before another’s animal (thereby allowing the animal to escape); and one who bends another’s standing grain before a fire (so that it catches fire); and one who hires false witnesses to testify; and one who knows testimony in support of another but does not testify on his behalf.

The Gemara agrees with Rabbi Yehoshua that for all these — ways that a person can cause significant harm to another, but it’s pretty much impossible to prosecute — God can punish a person. The Gemara also adds a handful more to the list, for example:

One who places poison before another’s animal, and the animal eats it and dies, is exempt according to human laws, but liable according to the laws of Heaven.

Since the poison was placed before, and not fed to, the animal, the animal ate it of their own accord. While the perpetrator’s actions pretty clearly led to the death of the animal, they did so indirectly, making the perpetrator immune from punishment in human court. There’s some satisfaction in knowing Heaven has the option of taking notice.

Similarly:

One who frightens another and causes them injury is exempt according to human laws but liable according to the laws of Heaven.

If a person sneaks up on another and blasts a horn in their ear, causing them hearing loss, they are exempt from having to pay damages. If a person jumps out of the shadows causing another to fall and hurt themselves, they too are exempt from having to pay damages. Here, the reason is that for one to be held accountable by the rabbinic courts for injuries inflicted upon another person, there must have been physical contact. In these cases, there is none. No matter how malicious (or even innocent) the intent, nor how severe the injury, human beings cannot enact justice because the perpetrator did not physically strike their victim. Only Heaven can make it right.

The rabbis were aware that legal systems are not perfect. Even theirs, despite the fact that it is rooted in Torah, God’s manual for building a just society, is known to them to be limited. Rabbi Yehoshua reassures us, though, that the system has a fail-safe: God has the power to even a score humans cannot. But will God choose to exercise that power? That’s another discussion entirely.

Read all of Bava Kamma 56 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on December 28th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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