Bava Kamma 61

Fountain of youth.

Toward the end of yesterday’s daf, the Talmud retells an obscure story about King David, who is camped near Bethlehem, his childhood home, and craving the water of a certain well. Three of his warriors take it upon themselves to break through the garrison of the Philistines and bring David his desired water. But David does not drink the prized water. Instead, he dramatically pours it out as a libation to God and says: “The LORD forbid that I should do this! Can [I drink] the blood of the men who went at the risk of their lives?” (II Shmuel 23:17

David initially desired the water, but he is shocked that his soldiers risked their lives to fulfill his whim. (It seems they were not lacking for drinking water, but only wishing to fulfill David’s desire to taste the water of his youth.) The Talmud takes this dramatic moment and reinterprets it so that David asked not for water, but for Torah — specifically, a halakhic ruling about the laws of damages by fire. 

Several rabbis postulate that David is asking a question related to another battle described in II Samuel 23 and 1 Chronicles 11, and they suggest several possibilities about what he wants to know. One possibility is that he wanted to know if one will be held responsible for inadvertently destroying an object hidden among crops burned during wartime. Another possibility is that the Philistines were hiding among stacks of barley and David wanted to know if it was possible to destroy the barley to save the lives of his warriors. And still a third possibility is that he asked about the permissibility of expropriating Jewish crops to feed his animals and paying back the loss with the crops of the Philistines.

To all of these questions he received the same answer: 

It is prohibited to save oneself by (destroying) the property of another. But you are king, and a king may breach the fence in order to form a path for himself, and none may protest him.

Just as a king may expropriate private property, so may a king break other laws of damages. (See Bava Batra 100b). Imagining that the brash King David would have been asking about tort law in the middle of a battle, only to find out he’s already exempt, is highly unrealistic. The Gemara is winking at us here, admitting that the application of tort law to a verse from the Book of Chronicles or Samuel is a big interpretive leap.  

On today’s daf, the Gemara provides a few explanations for why David refused to “drink” the words of Torah that his warriors brought to him. One is that he refused the exception for a king.

David said to himself: Since there is a prohibition involved, it is not satisfactory to me (to act in this manner). 

Another explanation is that David accepted the halakhic answer as legally valid, but he refused to praise his men for risking their lives, even for the sake of Torah.

David said to himself: This I received from the court of Samuel of Rama: Anyone who hands himself over to die for words of Torah, do not say a matter of halakhah in his name, 

The Gemara imagines David taking a stand against taking military risks, even in the name of Torah. This is quite a flip, as in the original context, these stories praise the bravery and strength of David’s warriors. 

This Gemara is part of a long tradition of reimagining King David as a Torah scholar and transmuting his military prowess into agility at prayer, poetry and Torah. David is no longer an impulsive general who blurts out his desire to drink from a dangerously placed cistern only to later regret that his men risked their lives for him. Rather, he is a considered legal thinker who asks about the laws of property damage even in the midst of war. David’s strength is no longer the ability to fend off the enemy with force, but to demonstrate discipline and to forgo the special rights and privileges due to him as king. 

Read all of Bava Kamma 61 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 2nd, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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