Talmudic pages

Bava Kamma 8

Alternate lands.

The sages divided land into three levels of quality, based (presumably) on its fertility: best, intermediate and inferior. The mishnah that opened this tractate stated a general principle that damages are paid from the best land. Today’s daf asks whether this means the best land that a person owns, or the best generally? 

To figure out the answer, the Gemara brings a beraita which states that while damages are paid from superior land, loans are repaid from intermediate land and marriage contracts are paid from inferior land. It then considers scenarios in which a person does not have the right kind of land to pay the sort of debt he owes. Some of these scenarios are simple. For instance, if he owns only inferior quality land, then he must pay all three kinds of debt only from this kind of land, since that’s all he has.

But what if he owns two kinds of land, neither of them the right kind for the debt he owes? The beraita describes all the possible permutations, which boil down to this: If the debtor lacks inferior land from which to pay a ketubah, he pays from intermediate land (he is forced to level up). If he lacks intermediate land to repay a loan, he repays it from inferior land (leveling down). And if he lacks superior land from which to pay damages, he pays damages from the intermediate land (it’s the best he can do).

So far, this seems reasonable, and we’ve got the answer to our initial question: We know that land is judged by an external standard and, in light of that understanding, we know how a person repays different kinds of loans when he lacks the right kind of land for payment. But now the Gemara raises another concern because the sages have a second beraita that contradicts the first:

If a debtor has only intermediate-quality and inferior-quality land, damages are collected from the intermediate-quality land, while payments to a creditor and payments of a woman’s marriage contract are made from the inferior-quality land. 

This beraita also considers the case of someone who lacks superior land but has the other two kinds. But while the first beraita stated that a person in this circumstance pays loans from intermediate land, this one says they are paid from inferior land. So which is it?

The Gemara proposes four resolutions to this contradiction, but the final one may be the most interesting: 

Ravina said: Another resolution to the contradiction between the beraitot is that they disagree with regard to the opinion of Ulla, as Ulla says: By Torah law, a creditor collects from inferior-quality land, as it is stated: “You shall stand outside, and the man you have a claim against will bring his collateral out to you.” (Deuteronomy 24:11) One can infer: What item would a person typically choose to bring out for payment? The most inferior of his utensils. But if so, for what reason did the sages say that a creditor collects from intermediate-quality land? They instituted this ordinance so as not to lock the door in the face of potential borrowers.

Ulla points out that this whole system of repaying damages from superior land, loans from intermediate land and marriage contracts from inferior land is not biblical. By his reading of the Torah, loans are actually repaid from inferior land. After all, Deuteronomy 24:11 suggests that it is the debtor who chooses what to use for repayment, and we can safely assume that a self-interested debtor will choose something of inferior quality. However, the sages instituted that a loan must be repaid from intermediate land in order to encourage people to give loans. If I know that my loan is likely to be repaid with something of inferior quality, I’ll be reluctant to give it in the first place. And when creditors get nervous, it’s bad for the entire community. This, says Ravina, explains the difference between the two beraitot. The first holds with the sages, that loans should be repaid from intermediate land, and the second holds by the lower standard of repayment derived from the Torah, that loans are repaid from inferior land.

This is a complex sugya and I haven’t even been able to present all of it. This is what makes Talmud such a fascinating but sometimes difficult endeavor. The sages are concerned with multiple kinds of concerns and they often address them simultaneously. There is a desire to clearly exposit rulings, for instance: What exactly do we mean by superior land? There are also questions motivated by contradictions between texts, such as: How do we understand two beraitot that contradict one another? And there are higher-order concerns that certain rules will be detrimental to society and must be adjusted, such as the Torah standard that loans are repaid from inferior land — a standard that might freeze up the much-needed credit market. Balancing fidelity to God and the texts of their predecessors with the needs of the community are all important factors in the rabbinic project. It makes the Talmud complicated, but that complication reflects the messiness of the world in which we live.

Read all of Bava Kamma 8 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on November 10th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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