Bava Kamma 93

Predators and prey.

Today’s daf offers some complicated thoughts on oppression and victimization. 

Rabbi Abbahu says: A person should always be among those who are pursued and not among the pursuers. As none among birds are pursued more than doves and pigeons, and the verse deemed them fit on the altar.

Rabbi Abbahu, an amora (late rabbi) of the third generation who lived under Roman rule, derives a powerful moral lesson from the biblical list of which birds can be sacrificed on the altar. Noting that the list includes only doves and pigeons, neither of which are predators, Rabbi Abbahu argues that the Torah is articulating a preference for those who do not prey on others. 

Of course, if we take a step back, we see that this preference is for which birds can be ritually slaughtered. If we read these two statements together then, Rabbi Abbahu is not promising that the pursued will lead a long and happy life, only that they are fit to die in the service of God. Less uplifting, more complicated. 

But in some ways, Rabbi Abbahu’s teaching is one of the simpler teachings on this subject on today’s daf. It comes immediately after a discussion of the moral lessons found in several episodes in the lives of Abraham and Sarah. Let’s look at one of them:  

Rabbi Hanan says: One who passes judgment of another is punished first, as it is stated: “And Sarai said to Abram: My wrong be upon you.” And it is written: “And Abraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her” (Genesis 23:2).

Genesis 16 recounts how, after many years of infertility, the matriarch Sarah gives Abraham her enslaved woman, Hagar, as a wife. The Torah tells us that after Hagar conceived a child, “her mistress was lowered in her esteem” (Genesis 16:4).

Sarah is upset by this turn of events, and turns to Abraham, demanding: “The Lord judge between me and you” (16:5). In the context of the story, Abraham turns Hagar over to Sarah, who treats Hagar harshly until she runs to (temporary) freedom in the wilderness. But Rabbi Hanan ends the story differently, with Sarah’s death before her husband, which he thinks was a punishment for Sarah bringing God into an internal household dispute. 

For Rabbi Hanan, the victim in this account is Abraham, who was unjustly informed on by his wife. Others might see the victim as Sarah, struggling with the inversion of power dynamics in her household at the same time as the reality of her own infertility is made manifest.

But there is actually a third figure in this story, Hagar, who has many manifestations: She appears as an Egyptian princess in the midrash, a founder of central Muslim ritual practices in Saudi Arabia, and an important site of modern-day African American biblical interpretation. But in this one rabbinic teaching, she appears only in her absence, the anonymous source of the “wrong” that Sarah has experienced. 

Hagar is an enslaved woman, distanced from her family, and turned into a present for her owner’s husband. She is now a wife, but is still enslaved, and can be mistreated and even (in Genesis 21) cast out of the household entirely. She is impregnated (and it’s important to note that Abraham’s actions are described from his perspective using active verbs, but the Torah gives us no sense of her thoughts or desires in this situation) but the pregnancy threatens an established social order. She is not in control of her own destiny, but as the Torah will conclude in Genesis 21, she is a survivor, a matriarch, a founder of her own people.

Who are the pursuers? Who are the pursued? Who is predator and who is prey? And which among them should we privilege? Today’s daf reminds us that these questions may have rightanswers, but those answers aren’t easy.

Read all of Bava Kamma 93 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 3rd, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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