Bava Kamma 99

A custom engagement ring.

A mishnah on yesterday’s daf describes accidental damages inflicted by a hired craftsperson:

If one gave items to craftsmen to fix and they damaged them, the craftsmen are liable. If one gave a chest, a box or a cabinet to a carpenter to fix, and he damaged it, he is liable to pay. 

The mishnah is, at first glance, unequivocal that hired artisans are financially responsible for damages that occur during the process of completing a job. But the Gemara quickly complicates that conclusion by questioning the relationship between the general rule (about craftspeople) and the ensuing example of a carpenter. Is the example merely illustrative — in which case it would add no new information to what we’ve already learned — or a delimiter on the previous statement?

Rav Asi says: The sages taught that a carpenter is liable to pay damages only in a case where one gave the carpenter a chest, a box or a cabinet to drive a nail into them, and he drove the nail into them and broke them. But if one gave wood to a carpenter to build a chest, box or cabinet, and he built the chest, box, or cabinet from the wood, and (before giving it to the owner) broke them, he is exempt. What is the reason for this? It is because a craftsman acquires through the enhancement of the vessel.

Rav Asi distinguishes between different kinds of tasks. If the artisan damages a fully formed object of value while repairing it, they are liable. But if you commission a craftsperson to build something from scrap and then accidentally break it, they are exempt because they essentially own the enhancement — meaning the value they created by turning the wood into a bookshelf — until they hand their work over to their employer. If the newly made bookshelf breaks while still in their workshop, they owe their employer the cost of the wood, but not the cost of the finished bookshelf. 

This concept of enhancement is somewhat abstract. The value is not in the form of money because no money has passed hands yet; but this value once created can also be measured, lost, or used and so we could call it money in potentia. 

The Gemara discusses several cases to test whether Rav Asi’s position — that the craftsperson owns the value of enhancement — has legs to stand on. In one of them, a woman gives raw gold to a jeweler saying:

Fashion bracelets, earrings, or rings for me, and I will be betrothed to you. Once he has fashioned them she is betrothed — this is the statement of Rabbi Meir. And the rabbis say: She is not betrothed until money enters her possession.

Recall that to become betrothed a man must give a woman something of value. Therefore, Rabbi Meir’s opinion seems to align with Rav Asi: The craftsman owns the enhanced value of the gold turned jewelry and, by giving that value to her, enacts the betrothal. The rabbis, however, might be understood to say that the craftsman does not own the increased value of the jewelry he has created, rather the woman continues to own the raw material as it is being turned into jewelry and gains value; and until she pays his fee, he is considered to have loaned her money equal to the value of the enhancement. He can choose to forgive the “loan,” but a betrothal cannot be enacted by forgiving a loan, so they are not engaged.

The Gemara ultimately dismisses the idea that Rabbi Meir and the rabbis disagree about the status of enhancement value, as their debate can be interpreted in several ways. Rava uses this as an opportunity to set the record straight on whether a craftsperson acquires the enhancement of an object they create from someone else’s raw materials: 

Rava said: Everyone agrees that with regard to one who betroths a woman with a loan, she is not betrothed; and everyone agrees that a craftsman does not acquire ownership rights through the enhancement of the vessel. 

An artisan, therefore, does not acquire the value he or she adds to materials. And, however romantic it sounds, a woman cannot give a jewelry maker raw gold to form into custom jewelry and thereby legally enact an engagement. The rabbis conclude that the engagement only succeeds if the jewelry maker adds a jewel — even a jewel worth only a peruta — to the jewelry. To make her his, he must add something of tangible value that indisputably belongs to him. On the plus side, this may seem an even more romantic way to craft an engagement ring: her gold and his jewel.

In many ways on this daf the rabbis recognize the value of a craftsman’s work as more than hours of labor, but as the ability to create value in the world. On the other hand, when creating a new bond of marriage, a tangible transfer from groom to bride is the focal point, and not just money in potential. 

Read all of Bava Kamma 99 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 9th, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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