Bava Kamma 94

Object permanence.

A thief is required to return a stolen object to its original owner, but this gets complicated if the object has undergone a change (such as wheat that has been baked into bread). Is the bread considered equal to the original object and must be returned, or is it considered a new object belonging to the thief, who must then compensate the owner monetarily for what they stole?

On yesterday’s daf, Abaye reported that Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya’akov holds that a changed item “remains in its place” — that is, it retains the status it had before the change. But Rabbi Eliezer did not say this directly, and today the Gemara presents a source to support the assumption that this is what he actually believes. 

It is taught that Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya’akov says: One who robbed a se’a  of wheat, ground it, kneaded it, and baked it, and then separated challah  from it, how can he recite the blessing? He is not reciting a blessing, but rather he is blaspheming. 

Separating challah is the practice of giving a portion of every batch of baked dough to support the priesthood, a ritual still practiced today even though the Temple is no longer standing. Since the separation of dough is a religious obligation, a blessing is recited. Rabbi Eliezer says that if a person steals wheat and turns it into dough, it’s blasphemous for them to say a blessing over the separation of challah because they are carrying out a sacred duty with stolen goods. This suggests then that Rabbi Eliezer believes the change undergone by stolen wheat has not transformed it into something new. Rather, the dough is still the wheat and is still considered to be stolen goods. 

This reasoning provides grounds for Abaye to assert that Rabbi Eliezer holds that a changed item remains in its place. But the logic is not ironclad:

Perhaps Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya’akov states there only with regard to a blessing, because this is a mitzvah performed through a transgression.

It’s possible, says the Gemara, that Rabbi Eliezer’s ruling was narrowly about the propriety of carrying out a religious obligation by means of a transgression and should not be construed as a broader statement about how transformation affects the status of a stolen object. This argument casts some doubt on whether Abaye is correct in his view about Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion in this regard. But either way, let’s not let this discussion distract us from taking Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya’akov’s teaching to heart: A religious life that is enabled by unethical behavior is an affront to God. So attend not only to the performance of rituals, but also to the process by which you prepare to do so.

Read all of Bava Kamma 94 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 4th, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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