Bava Kamma 59

Black shoes.

Eliezer Ze’eira is walking through the market in Nehardea wearing black shoes when some officials from the house of the exilarch stop him to challenge his choice of footwear color. Is Eliezer Ze’eira being pulled over by the fashion police? It appears he is. As Tosafot explains, the wearing of black shoes was a non-Jewish custom, one to which Jews did not conform. His choice of footwear separated him from his people, which the local Jewish authorities call into question. But Eliezer Ze’eira has a justification for his behavior:

I am wearing them because I am in mourning over Jerusalem. 

You might think that mourning for the destruction of Jerusalem would be an acceptable reason to don black shoes, but in this instance, it made things worse for Eliezer Ze’eira.

They said to him: Are you of such importance to mourn over Jerusalem? They thought that it was presumptuous. So they brought him and incarcerated him.

Down in the count, Eliezer takes an aggressive swing:

He said to them: I am a great man. 

They said to him: How do we know? 

He said to them: Either you ask of me a matter (of halakhah), or I will ask you a matter (of halakhah). 

They said to him: You ask.

The powers that be give Eliezer a chance to defend himself: If he can prove that he is a great man, they are willing to drop the charges against him  And so Eliezer puts a halakhic question to them:

One who cuts (a cluster of flowers) on the stem (of a date palm), what is he required to pay? 

They said to him: He pays the value of the stem. 

He said to them: But they will become dates (which are worth more). 

They said to him: He pays the value of the dates. 

He said to them: But he did not take dates. 

Eliezer Ze’eira asks how much one is assessed as a penalty for taking the stem of a date palm that belongs to someone else? The officials’ first guess is the value of the stem, but since that stem will eventually yield much pricier dates, that doesn’t seem quite fair. So instead they suggest he pay the value of the dates that will one day grow there, but that doesn’t seem fair either, since the person didn’t take dates — he only took the stem.

Having stumped the officials, Eliezer Ze’eira then provides an answer: We assess the damage based upon how it would reduce the value of an area of land sixty times larger. After reaching out to Shmuel, the head of the rabbinical academy in Nehardea, for confirmation, the officials release Eliezer Ze’eira and send him on his way.

This story is told on today’s daf because the principle of assessing damage based on a similar piece of land sixty times the size is central to the discussion. But it raises questions of its own. Are the officials justified in calling out Eliezer Ze’eira for wearing footwear in the style of their non-Jewish neighbors? Is Eliezer Ze’eira justified in deviating from the norm because he is morning for Jerusalem? And is he justified in mourning for Jerusalem only because he is a Torah scholar?

The story also raises some larger questions too. Should our leaders be afforded greater leeway in how they act or should they be treated like everyone else? And when we notice that a person has made a personal choice that goes against social norms, at what point, if at all, should we step in and challenge them?

The Talmud does not take on any of these questions directly, but by telling us Eliezer Ze’eira’s story, it definitely puts them on the table.

Read all of Bava Kamma 59 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on December 31st, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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