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Bava Metzia 109

Five sons-in-law.

The Talmud tells us that Rav Yosef once hired a gardener to plant fruit-bearing trees on his property. Their agreement was like that of a sharecropper: the gardener would earn a percentage of the yield that the trees produced. Before the work was complete, however, the gardener died and his business was inherited by his five sons-in-law. This left Rav Yosef with a dilemma:

Rav Yosef said: Until now I had to deal with only one person; now there are five. Until now they did not rely on each other to plant the trees and did not cause me a loss, but now that they are five they will rely on each other to plant the trees and cause me a loss. 

When he only had to deal with one contractor, Rav Yosef was confident that the work would get done. But now that there were five planters in the business he is not so sure. Rav Yosef worries that each of the sons-in-law will assume one of the others is planting the trees and none of them will show up to complete the work. Fearing financial loss, he decides to find someone else to do the work.

In breaking the news that he is ending their contract, Rav Yosef makes the five sons-in-law an offer and a threat:

If you take the value of your enhancement that you brought to the field and remove yourselves, all is well, but if not, I will remove you without giving you the value of the enhancement.

In other words: Leave in a timely manner and take with you (in produce) the value of the enhancements that your late father-in-law made to the property. If you don’t, I’ll force you out and give you nothing. In making this offer, Rav Yosef relies on a teaching of Rav Yehuda (some say it was Rav Huna and others say it was Rav Nahman): 

With regard to this planter who died, his heirs may be removed without receiving the value of the enhancement.

Rav Yosef’s offer to pay the five sons-in-law for the enhancements to the property, albeit a short term one, is generous. But before we have a chance to commend him for going beyond what he is legally required to do, the Gemara informs us that this is not correct, but then neglects to tell us what the law is. Some commentators suggest that the mistake was instead an attributional one. Others suggest that Rav Yosef fabricated the teaching himself as a way to motivate the men to take his offer and move on.

These commentators may be correct as the law in this matter follows an earlier rabbinic text, Tosefta Bava Metzia 9:6, which says that when a person contracts to work the field of another and subsequently dies, the field’s owner cannot demand payment from the inheritors for any benefits they received from the land (because the person did not complete the work that they agreed to complete, so any benefit they acquired is an ill-gotten gain), nor can the heirs demand full payment for their father’s work as it was not complete. Rather, they evaluate the improvements that the dead person made to land and the owner is required to pay the heir an amount equal to the value of the improvement.

In the end, Rav Yosef’s offer was in line with the law, but his threat to send the planters home with nothing if they did not leave quickly and of their own accord was not. If he made that threat based on an erroneous teaching that he had indeed been taught, his actions are understandable. But if he fabricated the teaching to force the others of his land, then he abused his power.

Read all of Bava Metzia 109 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 16, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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