Bava Kamma 95

Bad dye job.

When it comes to animals, a thief can’t always return exactly what they stole — as in the case of a cow that subsequently gives birth or a sheep that is subsequently shorn. Who benefits from this appreciation: the thief, in whose care the animal thrived, or the one from whom it was stolen in the first place? A mishnah we encountered two days ago holds that the thief must repay exactly what was stolen and this is achieved by calculating the value of the pregnant cow or wooly sheep and handing over that amount (plus any penalties). The thief keeps the animal and whatever it produced.

But not all rabbis agreed with this ruling. The Gemara on today’s daf brings a beraita (early rabbinic text) that offers three proposals for restitution in this case: 

One who steals a ewe and sheared it, and one who steals a cow and it gave birth, must pay it and its sheared wool or it and its offspring — this is the statement of Rabbi Meir.

Rabbi Yehuda says: A stolen item is returned as is.

Rabbi Shimon says: A stolen item is viewed as though it had been monetarily appraised at the time of the robbery (and the robber pays only that amount).

Rabbi Shimon agrees with our mishnah: The solution is to calculate the value of the animal at time of theft and return that monetary amount. Rabbi Yehuda, whose opinion is largely ignored, says the robber can actually just return the post-partum cow or shorn sheep and keep the calf or wool. But on today’s daf the Gemara is particularly curious about the reasoning of Rabbi Meir who says that the robber doesn’t pay for what he stole but must return the actual animal and its “produce” (i.e., the calf or the wool).

What, asks the Gemara, is the reasoning of Rabbi Meir? Is it that he believes that even though the cow’s fetus or sheep’s wool undergoes a transformative change (being born or shorn), those still belong to the original owner and not the thief? Or does he believe that the transformation they undergo is enough to transfer ownership of them to the thief, but the thief is required to give them back to the original owner as a penalty?

The Gemara determines the answer by looking at Rabbi Meir’s ruling in a related case (which we will encounter again in just a few pages): 

Come and hear what was taught in the mishnah (Bava Kamma 100b): If one gave wool to a dyer to dye it red for him and he dyed it black, or to dye it black and he dyed it red, Rabbi Meir says: The dyer gives the owner of the wool the value of his wool. (It can be inferred from this mishnah): The value of his wool, yes, but the value of his wool and its enhancement, no. 

The craftsperson who messes up a dye job is like a thief because ruining their customer’s wool is, in some sense, tantamount to stealing it. In this case, according to Rabbi Meir, the dyer acquires the wool with the unwelcome change, and owes the original value of the raw wool to the owner. Likewise, concludes the Gemara, he must also reason that once the cow gives birth or the sheep is shorn, the thief acquires the calf and or the pile of wool, which have likewise undergone significant transformation. His requirement that these be returned is then understood as a penalty.

Does any of this discussion matter? Not practically, because the mishnah we originally read holds that it is money that is returned, not the animal and its baby or wool. Nonetheless, the sugya gives us a window into the thinking of Rabbi Meir, one of the greatest talmudic minds of all time — and that too is worth exploring.

Before we go for the day, I’d like to point out that this mishnah about wool that is accidentally dyed the wrong color is frequently cited in discussions about theft. Similar rulings appear multiple times in three different tractates (Bava Kamma, Avodah Zara and Bava Metzia). What is it about this example that resonates so deeply with the rabbis? 

I would argue that this infuriating situation of a dye job gone wrong is, in some sense, recognizable to anyone who has ever been disappointed in a purchase — in other words, pretty much everyone. While most of us probably haven’t taken raw wool to be custom dyed, some of us have had shoes dyed to match a dress, and it can be disappointing if they don’t come out the right shade. Or, in the realm of higher-stakes purchases, perhaps you paid a contractor to redo your kitchen and the circuitry shorted out and ruined a new oven, necessitating a further payment to an electrician (and a loss of a day’s pay because someone has to stay home to let them in). In these cases, who should be financially responsible? Now think about the words you might use to tell this tale of woe to your friends: “They cheated me!” “It was highway robbery!”   

Perhaps this depiction by the rabbis is also intended to resonate with their audience; after all, folks are thankfully more likely to end up with a bad purchase than to have had their animal stolen. I find the idea comforting that those studying the Talmud in ancient times as well as in ours benefited from relatable examples in order to connect more deeply with the text.

Read all of Bava Kamma 95 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 5th, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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