We’ve encountered these categories before: the deaf-mute who is unable to communicate, the imbecile who has diminished mental capacities and a child who has yet to reach the age of majority. Just as the rabbis exempt people who fall into these categories from certain religious obligations, so too do they exempt them from paying damages when they cause injuries to others. But they can be owed damages if injured by others, as the mishnah warns:
An encounter with a deaf-mute, an imbecile or a minor is disadvantageous — one who injures them is liable, but if they injured others, they are exempt.
The question arises: Since a child is a minor and cannot own property, how can they be paid damages? The Gemara has two answers, each coming from a beraita, an earlier rabbinic teaching. Here’s the first:
One who injures his adult son must give him his compensation immediately. If he injures his minor son, he must make a safe investment for him. One who injures his minor daughter is exempt, and moreover, if there were others who injured her, they are liable to give compensation to her father.
The first beraita differentiates between genders. Sons are compensated directly — adult sons immediately, and young boys receive their damages in the form of a trust that will become available when they reach maturity. Fathers pocket damages paid to minor girls, and adult daughters are ignored by this text altogether.
Here’s another perspective, our second beraita:
In a case of one who injures the sons or daughters of others, if they are adults the perpetrator must compensate them immediately; if they are minors they must make a safe investment for them. If one injures one’s own sons or daughters, he is exempt from paying them compensation.
This second baraita starts with the scenario that it is not the father but someone outside the family who inflicts the damage. Sons and daughters are compensated equally with adults being paid directly while payments to children are held in a trust. Meanwhile, in contradistinction to the other beraita, parents are exempt from making payments for injuries they cause to their children.
The Gemara resolves the tension between the two beraitas by applying the first, which requires a parent to compensate their child for damages, to cases that involve financially independent children. The second beraita, where the parent is exempt from paying, involves dependent children.
While they differ on some key points, these beraitas agree that when damages are due to minors, they are invested for the future. How so? The Gemara offers various opinions:
Rav Hisda says: A Torah scroll.
Rabba bar Rav Huna says: A date palm, from which the child will consume dates.
Rabba bar Rav Huna’s suggestion makes good financial sense. Date palms have a long life span (a century or more) and a single tree can produce upwards of 150 pounds of dates per growing season, which can be eaten or sold. A solid investment for rabbinic times.
While Rabba bar Rav Huna is thinking about the best possible financial investment, Rav Hisda has something more ethereal in mind. The Hebrew word for safe investment that appears in the Talmud is segula, which can also be translated as heirloom or treasure. In the Torah, it is often used to describe the special relationship between God and the Israelites (see, for example, Exodus 19:5). Rav Hisda argues that if we are supposed to put the payments toward a segula, what better way than by acquiring a sefer Torah? A date-palm will nourish them in this world, a Torah will do so in the world to come as well.
While each of these suggested investments is beautiful in their own way, in this case the legal tradition directs us to invest the money in a plot of land, hopefully providing a secure financial future for the child.
Read all of Bava Kamma 87 on Sefaria.