Bava Metzia 103

Local custom.

A famous and famously unattributable quote asserts that, “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.” We might say the same of Jews — following the same religion but living in numerous diverse locales and cultures. The challenge this presents is taken up by today’s daf. 

A new chapter of Bava Metzia begins with a mishnah that outlines the obligations of a person working someone else’s land

One who receives a field from another: In a location where those cultivating the land were accustomed to cut the produce, this one must cut it as well. Where they were accustomed to uproot the produce, they must uproot it. Where they were accustomed to plow the land after harvesting the produce, they must plow as well. All farming of the land shall be conducted in accordance with regional custom.

We’re talking about someone who cultivates another’s farmland — like a tenant farmer or sharecropper. One might have thought that it was up to this person to decide how to manage the land, but this is not so. Rather, they farm the land as is customary in their region of the world.

The mishnah reflects a more general concept in Judaism: the primacy given to minhag hamakom, or local custom. For example, if you visit a synagogue with a different liturgy than your own, the expectation is that you will participate according to the custom of that synagogue. Rabbi Shalom Morris explains how this plays out at Bevis Marks Synagogue, the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue in London: In public prayers, visitors are expected to follow the customs of the synagogue, but in private prayers they are encouraged to say whatever is customary for them. If a group of guests rents the synagogue for their own ritual, then Rabbi Morris encourages them to follow their own customs because even though it takes place in the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue, the event is hosted by Jews from elsewhere. The principle of minhag hamakon, though on the surface simple, is actually complex in its application.

Likewise, while the mishnah on today’s daf seems to unambiguously state that one cannot diverge from regional custom when working someone else’s land, the Gemara adds nuance:

The mishnah teaches: “Where they were accustomed to plow the land after harvesting the produce, they must plow as well.” Isn’t it obvious that he cannot deviate from the custom? No, it is necessary for the situation of a place where the custom is not to weed the fields, and the one cultivating this field went and weeded anyway. Lest you say that he could say to the landowner: “When I weeded the field, I did so with the intention of not plowing it subsequently.” To counter this, the mishnah teaches us that the renter should have specified this intention explicitly to the landowner (beforehand).

While the prevailing custom dictates expectations for the tenant farmer, the text leaves significant room for compromise and conversation. The key is that the cultivator must speak to the owner in advance about their intention, then the two can peaceably agree to deviate from the local custom.

Read all of Bava Metzia 103 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 10, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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