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Bava Kamma 7

All are best quality.

The mishnah that opened this tractate states that damages are paid from the best quality land. A practical person might ask: What if it makes more sense to pay damages with money or other kinds of property? Must damages always be paid with land? Today we will find out.

Abaye raised a contradiction to Rava: It is written: “Of the best of his field and of the best of his vineyard he shall pay” (Exodus 22:4) which indicates best-quality land, yes, but from something else, no. But isn’t it taught in a beraita“And if a man shall open a pit, or if a man shall dig a pit and not cover it, and an ox or a donkey fall therein, the owner of the pit shall pay; he shall recompense money to its owners” (Exodus 21:33–34)? This includes any item worth money — even bran.

Abaye points out that Exodus 22:4 seems to clearly state that repayment is made from land, either the best of one’s fields or the best of one’s vineyards. But Exodus 21:34 muddies the waters, because it states that he “shall pay” and he “shall recompense.” The rabbis understood the language of the Torah to be perfectly economical, meaning no words are extraneous. Therefore, Abaye reasons, if “shall pay” refers to land then “shall recompense” must refer to something else — money or property (even something as modest as bran, the least desirable edible grain).

So which is it? Are damages paid only from land or can they be paid from other things? A large chunk of today’s daf is devoted to considering various resolutions to this contradiction. In the end, the resolution that works is one that rereads the first verse:

Rava said: Whatever he gives the injured party as payment he must give him of the best.

Rava understands the biblical phrases “best of his field” and “best of his vineyard” expansively, meaning that whatever he uses for repayment, he must use the sort that is of best quality, whether it is land or something else. This reading resolves the apparent contradiction between the verses and expands our understanding of what can be used to pay damages. 

Now there’s another question: Let’s suppose he pays damages with something other than land — say coins, grain or kitchen utensils. How can we determine which of these items are truly “best quality”? Luckily, it turns out we don’t have to:

Rather, when Rav Pappa and Rav Huna, son of Rav Yehoshua, came from Rav’s academy, they explained it as follows: All items are classified as property of the best quality, as, if an item cannot be sold here, it can be sold in another city. 

Which non-land items are of the best quality? Answer: All of them. This might seem counterintuitive, but the practical reason makes sense. What makes something best-quality is that it can be sold. Items that can’t be sold in one location can be sold elsewhere. If there’s no buyer, the problem is probably not the item, but the market. Land, however, is more difficult to sell because it can’t be moved. At base, our concern is that the person receiving the payment for damages should be able to sell whatever they receive. For this reason, they should be repaid in best quality land — which is easiest to sell.

This reasoning might strike you as not only complicated, but a little forced. All moveable items are “best quality”? Tell that to the toy I bought for my kids that broke five minutes after they started playing with it. And can that really be true of bran, the grain that the rabbis understood to be least delicious? Perhaps the point is not really to make the most reasonable sense of the words, but rather to build a defensible legal argument that serves a dual purpose: Making it easier for people to pay damages (by letting them pay with non-land items) and making it easier for the recipients of those items to benefit from them (by making them easier to sell). 

Read all of Bava Kamma 7 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on November 9th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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