Bava Metzia 106

What if?

Today we encounter a sugya that attempts to explain the cause of natural disaster in a just world. The framework for this theoretical struggle is a specific series of “what if?” scenarios in which the Gemara considers who might be to blame (and therefore bear the financial responsibility) when a high wind destroys crops on a tenant-farmed piece of land. Is it the fault of the owner? The tenant farmer? Or just unfortunate luck? Let’s takes look at some of these scenarios:

Scenario #1:

What the owner said to the tenant, “Plant wheat,” and the tenant planted barley. Most of the valley was wind blasted, and the barley was also wind blasted, what is the halakhah? Do we say that the tenant farmer can say to him, “Even if I had planted it with wheat it would likewise have been wind blasted, as all the surrounding fields suffered the same fate”? Or perhaps the owner can say to him: “Had you planted it with wheat, the following verse would have been fulfilled for me: And you shall decree a matter and it will be established for you, and the light shall shine upon your ways. (Job 22:28)”

The Gemara answers that we blame the tenant: If they had planted wheat as instructed, the field might not have been destroyed by wind.

Scenario #2: 

What if all the fields of the owner were wind blasted and this among them, but the majority of the valley was not wind blasted …

In this case, the owner’s fields are destroyed, both those farmed by this tenant and those that are not, even as neighboring fields owned by others are not destroyed. We might conclude that the owner is obviously to blame, yet the Gemara concludes:

If the tenant suggests that the owner’s fields were ruined because of bad fortune, the owner can reply that some should have remained, in that case, following Jeremiah (42:2): “For we are left but a few from many…

The owner, in response to the tenant’s claim that it is just really bad luck, can argue, along the lines of Jeremiah, that if that were the case, some should have remained. Instead, the tenant remains liable. The verse from Jeremiah describes a remnant that remains in the wake of war with Babylonia. After another scenario examining why this verse doesn’t apply to the tenant, we learn the following: 

Scenario #3:

What if the tenant didn’t plant crops at all (and other crops were destroyed in fields that were planted) …

The owner could say, “If you had planted crops, perhaps my merit would have allowed the verse in Psalms (37:19) to be fulfilled: “They will not be shamed in the time of evil, and in the days of famine they shall be satisfied.” 

This argument is rebutted, however, because the tenant could reply, “If you were worthy of a miracle, a miracle would have occurred…”

While some of these cases seem theologically straightforward, others leave room for ambiguity. The biblical verses cited build a rather complicated worldview. One of the verses used in this sugya comes from the Book of Job, a story in which God (at the behest of Satan) tests the righteous Job to see if he will continue to be righteous when all good things are taken from him. This book famously struggles to understand a world in which good people suffer disproportionately to their wrongdoing. Meanwhile, the quotation from Jeremiah, indicating that even in a disaster God does not take everything away, is (in context) a plea rather than a promise. Likewise, the quotation from Psalms is an entreaty — as is much of the Book of Psalms. What we are left with, both in these complicated scenarios and the rich prooftexts brought to answer them, is a sense that we can’t always explain natural disaster in terms of people’s merit. The only reasonable response may be to turn to God with questions, and with entreaties.

Read all of Bava Metzia 106 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 13, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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