Talmud pages

Bava Kamma 90


When one person strikes another, there can be physical damage — but not always. Today, the Talmud turns our attention to cases in which the pain of humiliation overshadows physical harm and presents a mishnah which standardizes the fine for a variety of offenses: 

If a person pulls another’s ear, or pulls out their hair, or spits at them and the spittle reaches them, or if they remove the other’s cloak, or if they uncover the head of a woman in the marketplace — the perpetrator must give them four hundred dinars.

Four hundred dinars is a significant sum — twice the value of the standard marriage contract. In setting the fine for public humiliation this high, the rabbis are doing what they can to disincentive public humiliation.

But alas, they were not successful. As the mishnah reports:

An incident occurred involving one who uncovered the head of a woman in the marketplace, and the woman came before Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Akiva rendered the assailant liable to give her four hundred dinars. The man said to Rabbi Akiva: “My teacher, give me time to pay the penalty,” and Rabbi Akiva gave him time.

If the story ended here our key takeaways might be that the rabbis enforced the fines established by the mishnah and, because they were large, granted the guilty party time to come up with the sum. But the tale continues:

The man then waited for her until she was standing by the opening of her courtyard, and he broke a jug in front of her, and there was the value of about an issar  of oil inside the jug. The woman then exposed her own head and she was wetting her hand in the oil, and placing her hand on her head to make use of the oil.

The man set up witnesses to observe her actions, and he came before Rabbi Akiva, and he said to him: “Will I give four hundred dinars to this woman for having uncovered her head?”

Rather than buying time to arrange for payment, the man unleashes a plot to rid himself of the obligation to pay. After putting witnesses in place, he waits for the woman to leave her home and then springs the trap, baiting her with pricey spilled oil. After she takes off her head covering to put some of the oil in her hair, opportunistically making use of the expensive commodity before it soaks completely into the ground, he brings the witnesses before Rabbi Akiva to testify to what they saw. ”Why should I have to pay a fine for humiliating this woman?” he argues. “After all, she unabashedly uncovers her hair in public and is not humiliated!” 

Will Rabbi Akiva buy the argument?

Rabbi Akiva said to him: “You have not said anything. One who injures himself, although it is not permitted for him to do so, is exempt from any sort of penalty, but others who injure him are liable to pay him.”

While we may not approve of the woman’s decision to expose her hair in public, Rabbi Akiva reasons, she did so of her own agency. She is responsible for any embarrassment or humiliation that she has brought upon herself. That she is exempt from penalty does not give the man license to shame her without consequence. 

Rabbi Akiva continues to hold the man accountable for the fine. While the text does not report it, I hope he also had words of rebuke for the dirty trick that man played in an attempt to skirt the law. Even if he didn’t, recording his actions in the Mishnah may be exactly the sort of rebuke he deserves.

Read all of Bava Kamma 90 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 31st, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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