Talmudic pages

Bava Metzia 100

Cloud of uncertainty.

Sometimes, parties come to court with claims that are less than certain. They may suspect they have a claim, but they aren’t entirely sure about it. The mishnah on today’s daf addresses such a situation, but when we get to the Gemara, things get a little more complicated. 

The mishnah lays out several permutations of a property dispute, and then considers variations in which one party makes a certain claim and the other party makes a certain one, ruling in such situations that the law should benefit the party that makes a certain claim over the party that makes an uncertain one. It then arrives at this principle: 

If this one says: “I do not know,” and that one says: “I do not know,” — they divide. 

In cases where two parties each have some claim of ownership, but neither is confident about their claim, the property is divided between them. The Gemara suggests that the mishnah’s principle is in accordance with the position of Sumakhos, who ruled that in cases of uncertain ownership, the property is divided equally between the two parties and neither is required to take an oath. But what if the dispute is between two certain claims? Does Sumakhos’ ruling still apply? 

Rabba bar Rav Huna said: Yes, Sumakhos says even when there is a conflict between a certain claim and another certain claim.

According to Rabba bar Rav Huna, if you have two certain claims, Sumakhos’s holding still applies and the property is equally divided. But Rava disagrees: 

Rava said: Actually, when Sumakhos said (only where there is a conflict between) an uncertain claim and an uncertain claim, but a certain claim and a certain claim, he did not say. 

Rava suggests that Sumakhos’ holding applies only to uncertain claims versus uncertain claims, not when both claims are certain. Because the mishnah isn’t explicit that division of the asset in dispute applies in cases of uncertain claims only, Rava suggests that an emendation is necessary for the sake of clarity and that the word “perhaps” should be added to the mishnah to make the uncertainty explicit.  

The Germara then goes back to take issue with Rabba bar Rav Huna’s opinion and questions whether Sumakhos’ rule truly applies to certain versus certain claims. If that were the case, would it be necessary to be explicit about dividing property in uncertain versus uncertain claims? If the Sumakhos rule applies when both parties are certain, then surely where the parties are uncertain it would be even more appropriate to skip the oath and divide the property. Moreover, the mishnah explicitly does require an oath in a case where two parties are involved in the sale of a slave but they disagree about which of two slaves was actually sold. How do we resolve this?

The Gemara answers: Sumakhos concedes when there is an oath required by Torah law.

An oath isn’t required if a person is uncertain about their claim, which makes sense. Otherwise, people could be swearing to things they themselves aren’t sure of. So Sumakhos’s principle must apply only when no oath is required — which means, ultimately, that his stance applies only when two uncertain claims come into conflict with each other.

Read all of Bava Metzia 100 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 7, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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