In Exodus 22:3, the Torah states that a person who steals an animal owes twice the value of that animal in restitution if the animal is recovered alive. Exodus 21:37 states that if someone steals an ox or a sheep, and then slaughters or sells it, that person must pay five times the value of an ox and four times the value of a sheep.
On today’s daf Rabbi Ile’a and Rabbi Hanina argue about what happens if the animal has changed between the theft and the discovery. Do we assess damages differently if a stolen lamb has matured and is now a ram, or a stolen calf has become a bull?
Rabbi Ile’a says: If one stole a lamb and it subsequently became a ram, or if he stole a calf and it became a bull, it has undergone a change in the thief’s possession, and he has acquired it (as his own property). If he slaughtered or sold it, it is in effect his own animal that he slaughters, or his own animal that he sells.
According to Rabbi Ile’a, if a person steals a young animal and it matures while in the thief’s care, the thief doesn’t owe double its value if it’s recovered alive, let alone or four or five times, because the animal has become the thief’s own possession in the meantime. If the theft is discovered after the thief has sold or slaughtered it, he owes nothing to the original owner.
How can this ruling possibly be fair? Not only does it seem contrary to the law set out in the Torah, but it cheats the owner of the stolen animal out of collecting proper restitution. Perhaps for these reasons, Rabbi Hanina objects to Rabbi Ile’a’s ruling:
If one stole a lamb and it became a ram, or if he stole a calf and it became a bull, he pays the double payment and the fourfold or fivefold payment according to the value as when he stole it.
Rabbi Hanina calls foul on Rabbi Ile’a, citing a beraita (early rabbinic text) upholding the Torah ruling and noting that the damages are assessed based on the value of the animal at the time it was stolen. After a few more rounds in which the two remain entrenched, the argument devolves:
Rabbi Ile’a said to Rabbi Hanina: May the Merciful One save us from this opinion of yours!
Rabbi Hanina said back to him: On the contrary, may the Merciful One save us from your opinion!
Following this rude exchange, cooler rabbinic voices weigh in and on tomorrow’s daf we learn that the law is decided in favor of Rabbi Hanina. But if this altercation sounds familiar, that’s because these two have fought similar battles before. On Ketubot 45b, they argue about the correct punishment for a minor girl who has had sex out of wedlock. And, on Shabbat 84b, in a discussion about the purification of a sleeping mat, they insult each other with the same invective: “May the Merciful One save us from your opinion!”
In each of these cases, the crux of the argument is whether a judgment should be rendered based on when the incident occurred (the opinion of Rabbi Hanina) or, if a change in status has taken place, at the time it is discovered (Rabbi Ile’a). The financial implications of this debate could be significant, and emotions clearly tend to run high, with the two rabbis so embroiled in making their respective cases that they can’t appreciate the other’s point of view. But a judgment needs to be made, and their colleagues weigh in and save the day.
We have seen some fairly dry discussions of late regarding this one’s ox or that one’s field. It’s refreshing to get a glimpse into the passion of the rabbis (insulting as it might be) as they make their arguments — even if their colleagues need to step in and finish the job.
Read all of Bava Kamma 65 on Sefaria.