Bava Kamma 74

The slave who deserved ordination.

Today the Gemara relates the following principle: 

Rav Huna says that Rav says: One who admits he is liable to pay a fine is exempt from payment, even if afterward witnesses come and testify to his liability.

This ruling, we can imagine, incentivizes people to confess because doing so will exempt them from paying additional fines — even if their guilt is later proven by sworn witnesses. 

But is this principle correct? The Gemara brings a challenge from a beraita, an early rabbinic tradition, about Rabban Gamliel:

There was an incident involving Rabban Gamliel who blinded the eye of his slave Tavi, and he (Rabban Gamliel) experienced great joy.

Rabban Gamliel encountered Rabbi Yehoshua and said to him: Do you know that my slave Tavi was emancipated?

Rabbi Yehoshua said to him: Why?

Rabban Gamliel said to him: Because I blinded his eye.

Rabbi Yehoshua said to Rabban Gamliel: Your statement is nothing as he has no witnesses. If he had witnesses, you would be obligated to emancipate him. 

From this beraita, the Gemara concludes:

We learn from this that one who admits that he is liable to pay a fine is liable, even if afterward witnesses came and testified.

Tavi, as we know from the many stories about him in the Talmud, was Rabban Gamliel’s beloved slave whom he considered like family. As a non-Jewish slave, however, he remained in servitude indefinitely, as Leviticus 25:46 requires regarding Canaanite slaves (a category the rabbis understood to include all non-Jewish slaves). But certain conditions could trigger the manumission of a non-Jewish slave, including grievous injury inflicted by his master. This is why, somewhat incongruously, Rabban Gamliel rejoices after he accidentally puts out the eye of his friend — because he now has the legal pretext needed to free him. 

The story appears several times in the Talmud — in the Jerusalem Talmud it is not Tavi’s eye but his tooth that is put out — but in this context it has the function of teaching us something about penalties for someone who admits wrongdoing. Ironically, because Rabban Gamliel admitted that he had taken Tavi’s eye out, Rabbi Yehoshua declared that the penalty (Tavi’s manumission) was rescinded. However, Rabbi Yehoshua consoled his colleague by telling him that if witnesses did come forward, then Rabban Gamliel would be required (and therefore able) to free Tavi. This shows, the Gemara explains, that in contradiction to the teaching of Rav Huna, admitting fault does not render a person immune from paying the penalty. If witnesses later testify, the penalty must be paid.

The Gemara resolves this contradiction by claiming that Rabban Gamliel did not make his admission at court, so it was not a true legal admission. Therefore, Rav Huna’s principle holds for those who make legal admissions in court. But let’s now leave the legal matter to one side and focus on what many will find more interesting and troubling here: The dynamic between Rabban Gamliel and Tavi.

That Rabban Gamliel loved his slave Tavi is well-known. Though not Jewish, Tavi was versed in Jewish law, as he famously demonstrated when he slept in his master’s sukkah underneath a bed (evincing his firm grasp on finer details of halakhah, as we discussed back on Sukkah 20). His erudition is stated more explicitly on Yoma 87a:

Canaan had many children who deserved to be ordained (as rabbis) — like Tavi, the servant of Rabban Gamliel.

When Tavi died, although it was not customary, Rabban Gamliel mourned him as a family member (Berakhot 16).

I don’t doubt that we are meant to understand the injury described in the story was an accident, making Rabban Gamliel’s joy in his friend’s manumission through grievous injury at his own hand especially poignant. Both master and slave were bound by divine laws they could not change, though clearly Gamliel would have preferred Tavi for a colleague.

Read all of Bava Kamma 74 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 15th, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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