Bava Metzia 108

Scholarly benefits.

A difficult question that presents itself to nearly all policymakers is how to pay for socially beneficial projects. How should the burden of funding roads, schools, parks, utilities and other public works be distributed? On today’s daf, the rabbis don’t necessarily say precisely who should pay for these things, but they have some ideas about who should not pay:

Rav Yehuda says: All participate in the payment for the construction of the city wall, and this sum is collected even from orphans, but not from the Torah scholars. The Torah scholars do not require protection, as the merit of their Torah study protects them from harm. 

According to Rav Yehuda, everyone — from the poorest orphans on up — is required to contribute to a town’s defense budget, with one notable exception: Torah scholars. Why? The Gemara trusts that Torah scholars generate enough divine goodwill that this alone will keep them safe from harm. As a result, they don’t need the safety that a city wall affords and don’t have to pay for it. Talk about putting your fate in God’s hands!

Interestingly, the Shulchan Aruch adds a more detailed rationale: Some communal projects require people to devote physical labor to the effort but allow individuals to buy their way out of sweat equity. In the case of building a wall, however, Torah scholars are exempt from the underlying obligation — out of a concern that this sort of labor would debase them — and therefore don’t need to pay.

On the other hand, public utilities appear to be a different story:

By contrast, money is collected for the digging of a river or a well for drinking water, even from the Torah scholars.

Torah scholars need to help pay for the water grid because, as Rashi notes, they drink water. As Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya has it in Pirke Avot 3:17ein kemach, ein torah — without sustenance (literally: flour), there is no Torah. Therefore, scholars contribute to the community’s water infrastructure.

But here too there’s a limitation, largely in line with the secondary rationale articulated above:

And we said this halakhah only if the town’s inhabitants do not go out in a crowd to perform the work themselves but pay workers to act on their behalf. But if they go out in a crowd, Torah scholars do not have to join them, as Torah scholars are not among those who go out in a crowd to perform work in public view.

Once again, the Torah scholar’s obligation extends only so far as financial duty. They are not expected to do physical labor “in public view” — presumably, because this would be undignified for them. Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah and other later writings lay out additional perks that accrue to a Torah scholar. Among other things, they’re exempt from chipping in for a gift to a king, they get priority in selling their wares in the marketplace and they jump to the head of the line when presenting their case in court. 

What are we to make of these exemptions for rabbis? Are these simply scholars taking advantage of their status and position to exempt themselves from communal contributions they find inconvenient or distasteful? (They wouldn’t be the first.) Or is it the case that Torah scholarship is of such vital benefit to the entire community that safeguarding the dignity of its purveyors is of benefit to all?

Read all of Bava Metzia 108 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 15, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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