Bava Metzia 11

Chasing animals.

Imagine you’re sitting in your kitchen, enjoying the morning paper and a cup of tea, when you hear some commotion in the yard. You go out to investigate and see people chasing an animal across your property, but before they can capture it you exclaim: “My field has effected acquisition of this animal for me!”

Can you claim ownership in this manner? According to a mishnah on today’s daf, it depends:

If one saw people running after a found animal — e.g., after a deer with a broken leg, or after young pigeons that do not yet fly — and says: “My field has effected acquisition for me,” it has effected acquisition for them. 

If the deer were running in its usual manner, or the young pigeons were flying, and the owner of the field said: “My field has effected acquisition for me,” they have said nothing. 

From the start, we should note that the mishnah is dealing with a found — that is, ownerless — animal. If the animal is owned, the mere fact that it has entered someone’s property does not entitle them to claim ownership. This applies to the people chasing the animal as well. If the animal is already owned, taking physical possession of it does not grant ownership.

But if the animal is ownerless, it can be claimed if it runs through someone’s field, but only if it’s injured (like the injured deer) or unable to escape on its own (like the pigeon who has yet to learn how to fly). If it’s a mature healthy animal, then it cannot be so claimed. Why the difference?

As Rashi explains, an animal that can’t escape on its own is like an inanimate object — it will stay in place in the field until someone moves it. And the owner of a field can claim an inanimate object that is sitting on their field. But a healthy animal that can depart the field under its own power can only be claimed by actually taking hold of it. So in order to take possession of such an animal, the field owner would have to join the chase and grab hold of the animal before the others do.

In the Gemara, Ulla limits the applicability of the mishnah to instances when the owner is standing adjacent to their field. In other words, the field owner might not have to grab hold of the animal physically if it is in their field, but they have to be in the area to be able to empower their field to “act” on their behalf.

Rabbi Abba objects to this based on a precedent found in a mishnah in Ma’aser Sheni, which states that Rabban Gamliel was once traveling with some colleagues on a boat. Realizing that he forgot to designate tithes from his harvest before he left, he seeks to rectify the situation by declaring: 

One-tenth of my produce, which I will measure out in the future, is given to Yehoshua. 

Rabban Gamliel makes a declaration that when he returns from his trip, he will separate the required tithe from his produce and give it to Yehoshua ben Hananya, a Levite who is entitled to receive it. On that basis, Rabbi Abba asks Ulla: Was Rabbi Yehoshua standing next to Rabban Gamliel’s field? If Rabbi Yehoshua doesn’t have to be standing next to the land that he rented to take possession of the tithes that sit upon them, why would the mishnah require a field owner to be standing next to their field in order to take possession of a wounded animal that sits on it?

Ulla responds sharply:

This one of the sages (i.e. Rabbi Abba) seems like one who has not studied halakhah.

Rabbi Abba’s question does not seem to be out of bounds and the text does not hint at why Ulla chooses to insult Rabbi Abba rather than answer him. Did Ulla have some kind of personal grudge against Rabbi Abba? Was he just having a bad day? We can’t be sure. 

The Gemara, however, does provide some redemption for Rabbi Abba. It reports that he replayed his conversation with Ulla in the academy of Sura and, although the consensus was that his objection did not hold (because Rabban Gamliel transferred ownership by renting the land to Rabbi Yehoshua and not through his declaration), Rabbi Abba was not chastised for raising his objection. 

Read all of Bava Metzia 11 on Sefaria.

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

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