Talmudic pages

Bava Kamma 98

The gold standard.

On yesterday’s daf, the rabbis discussed whether one has to pay back a loan in the same coinage as the original loan was given or whether one can pay it back in another currency. At the very end of the daf, Rava asks Rav Hisda a related question: What happens if the government adds metal to a coin, changing the weight of the coin but still calling it by the same name? Rav Hisda answers that you repay using the currency of the moment, meaning if you borrowed 50 shekels then you pay back 50 shekels, even if the exact weight of a shekel changed in the interim. 

When Rava asked the question, he clearly had another answer in mind, because now he pushes back against Rav Hisda: What if the new coin is much larger? Or much, much larger? What if the buying power of the currency changes? Rav Hisda sticks to his guns: a shekel is a shekel, no matter how much metal it contains. (Ironically, the word shekel literally means weight.)

Rav Ashi sides with Rava, but with more economic nuance:

Rav Ashi said: We examine the situation: If produce decreased in price due to the change in the weight of the coin, the debt is reduced. And if produce decreased in price due to the market value, the debt is not reduced for him.

Rav Ashi says that we adjust the debt if the currency changes, but not to compensate for inflation or deflation. If fruit became cheaper because coins are now worth more, the loan amount changes. But if fruit became cheaper because of other market forces, then the loan amount stays the same. 

This discussion leads the Gemara into a deeper conversation about the value of coins. Specifically, do coins have value that exceeds the value of the metal they contain? One answer can be found in a teaching from Rabba:

One who effaces the image of another’s coin is exempt from paying damages, even though he caused the coin to lose value. What is the reason for this, as he did not do anything? This statement applies only in a case where he struck it with a hammer and flattened it; but if he filed it with a file (he must pay the amount of the reduction in value) since he caused it to diminish in size.

Rabba says that destroying the markings on a coin by flattening it with a hammer does not make one liable for damages. Even though you may no longer use it as currency, it still contains the same amount of metal, and therefore it retains its value. But if you actually shave off the image on the coin and remove some of the metal in the process, then you must pay the difference. Rabba, therefore, resists the abstract value of a coin as currency and treats the metal (not the coin) as being the object of value — at least for the question of repaying damages. He then extends this logic:

And Rabba also says: One who burns another’s promissory note is exempt, as the one who burned it can say to him: I have burned only your paper. 

This is, for obvious reasons, troubling for several rabbis, as one could imagine many situations in which burning the promissory note would cause the lender to lose a lot of money. In the end, their voices win out over Rabba’s staunchly materialist approach to value. A promissory note is, indeed, worth more to the lender than the paper it is written on and so alternate means will be necessary to protect the lender and the loan.

Today, most of us are used to money having symbolic value. Not only are our coins worth more than the metal they contain, coins have largely been eclipsed by paper money — which, since 1933 in the United States, has not even been backed by gold. Furthermore, most people’s net worth is largely tied up in numbers recorded in bank accounts, with no physical object — not even a piece of paper — attached to the value. Our entire modern economic enterprise depends on the notion that representation of value has actual value.

The rabbis, as we have seen in the example of Rav Hisda, were certainly able to entertain the idea of abstract value. But in their time and place, coins exist in a liminal space having not only socially constructed but also inherent value. 

Read all of Bava Kamma 98 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 8th, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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