Talmudic pages

Bava Metzia 10

Personal space.

As modern psychologists have argued, personal space is important to feelings of well-being and safety. The rabbis of the Talmud also think extensively about personal space, but not explicitly from a psychological perspective. Instead, on today’s daf, they approach the idea of personal space through legal discussions of personal property acquisition:

Reish Lakish says in the name of Abba Kohen Bardela: Four cubits surrounding a person effects acquisition for him, everywhere. 

According to Abba Kohen Bardela, an early rabbi from the land of Israel who appears in the Babylonian Talmud only on this daf (though he is also quoted in some early midrashic texts), anything ownerless found within one’s personal space of four cubits can be considered “acquired” by that person. That means no one else can reach in and acquire it for themselves.

While Abba Kohen Bardela frames this discussion purely in terms of the laws of acquisition, the Talmud suggests a psychological resonance to the whole issue:

The sages instituted this ordinance so that people would not come to quarrel. 

It’s not difficult to imagine two people arguing over who gets to acquire an object found within the personal space of one of them. But we can also imagine that if one’s personal space didn’tacquire objects for them, others might constantly invade that space to acquire objects for themselves — leading to conflict.

Traditionally, the rabbis consider physically grasping an object — not just being in its vicinity — to be the primary means of acquisition. Just yesterday, we looked at a case in which a rider on a camel asked another to acquire an object at the camel’s feet — possibly in (or nearly in) the four cubit personal bubble. So the rabbis of the Talmud raise a series of objections to Abba Kohen Bardela’s position:

Abaye said that Rabbi Hiyya bar Yosef raises an objection to this from Pe’ah. Rava said that Rabbi Ya’akov bar Idi raises an objection from Nezikin.

Both rabbis point to mishnahs elsewhere in the Talmud which state that if someone fell on an object to acquire it, the acquisition doesn’t work. That seems to contradict the idea that just being within four cubits is enough to acquire.

The rabbis suggest different ways of resolving the contradiction: Perhaps one’s four cubits acquire only in the public domain, but not on private property? Perhaps they acquire in a sparsely populated region, but not in a crowded marketplace? Or perhaps one’s four cubits only acquire property for the person who is aware of the ownerless item in their personal space and intends to acquire it? 

Ultimately, the Talmud insists that the contradiction is resolved; Abba Kohen Bardela’s position is nuanced and upheld. The psychology of personal space and the legality of personal space are both in force.

Read all of Bava Metzia 10 on Sefaria.

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

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