Talmudic pages

Bava Kamma 58

Competing courts.

Today’s daf contains the following story: 

A certain man cut down a date palm belonging to another. They came before the exilarch, who said: I personally saw that place (where the date palm was planted, and it actually contained) three date palms standing together in a cluster, and they were worth one hundred dinars. Go and give him 33 and 1/3 dinars. 

The perpetrator said: Why do I need to be judged by the exilarch, who rules according to Persian law? He came before Rav Nahman, who said to him: Appraise the damage at 1/60. 

This fascinating story raises two questions that underscore elements of our discussion about damages. First, there’s the matter of the judgment itself: Does the perpetrator owe the person whose tree he cut down 1/3 or 1/60 of its value? And second, there’s the matter of which court holds sway: the secular court or the Jewish one? 

Earlier on today’s daf, the Gemara determined that if a portion of a field was damaged by a person or an animal, the court establishes the amount of restitution that must be paid on the basis of how much the damage reduced the value of an area of land 60 times larger. Because the impact of the damage is now distributed over a much larger parcel of land, it effectively reduces the guilty party’s liability to about 1/60th.

Not knowing (or not caring) that this is the general ruling of the Jewish courts, the exilarch, representing the Persian system of judgment, rules that the man owes one-third of the value of the three trees that the exilarch himself observed once stood together. The perpetrator doesn’t like that ruling and so appeals to the beit din (religious court), which estimates his liability at the rabbinic standard of 1/60th. 

The exilarch, or resh galuta (literally “head of the diaspora”), was the leader of the Jewish community in Babylonia in talmudic times. According to Seder Olam Zuta, written in the eighth century CE, a leader of the Jewish community in exile was first appointed during the Second Temple period, but there is no concrete evidence of an actual office of the exilarch until the time of the Mishnah. It’s not inconsequential that the Gemara’s view of the exilarch is not a favorable one. This is likely why the ruling of the exilarch is rejected in favor of the Jewish court’s ruling. In a not-so-subtle way, the Gemara is making a point about the precedence of the beit din over secular courts. 

Today, there are still matters for which members of the Jewish community might go to a beit din rather than a secular court (such as executing a get to effect a divorce). In some Orthodox communities, a beit din might hear civil cases as well. Because Diaspora Jewish communities have remained minority cultures within majority cultures, competing court systems remain throughout the world. These days, though, if I cut down my neighbor’s tree, it’s likely that the judgment will come from the secular authorities, and I’ll end up paying much more than 1/60 in damages. 

Read all of Bava Kamma 58 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on December 30th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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