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Bava Metzia 113

Stay out!

Today’s daf reminds us that those who owe money are part of the same rabbinic system as those who lend it out, and it’s a rabbinic system that integrates biblical law with rabbinic legal and ethical concerns to powerful ends. The mishnah lays out a set of laws that regulate how a debt can be ethically collected. Let’s look at the first two:

One who lends money to another, he may take collateral from him only by means of the court. And he may not enter the debtor’s house to take his collateral, as it is stated: “When you lend your neighbor any manner of loan, you shall not go into his house to take his collateral. You shall stand outside, and the man to whom you lend shall bring forth the collateral to you outside.” (Deuteronomy 24:10–11)

By insisting that there must be a court-appointed agent, a mediator, between the two when it comes to collecting collateral, the rabbis of the mishnah limit the kinds of awkward and unbalanced interactions that can take place when one person owes another money and may not be able to pay it back immediately. And by forbidding one from entering the debtor’s house to collect the collateral, the rabbis teach that even one who owes money and is late paying it back is entitled to the dignity of privacy.  

The Talmud then asks how these two different laws — about a court-appointed agent and not entering the debtor’s house — are connected. After all, if the lender can’t personally collect the debt, then they obviously can’t enter the debtor’s house to do it! So then what is the mishnah’s second statement adding to the discussion?

But didn’t we learn that one who lends to another may take collateral from him only by means of an agent of the court, from which we can infer that by means of an agent of the court he may (even) enter and take collateral?

Maybe only the initial lender is prohibited from entering the borrower’s house to take collateral but the agent of the court can? The Talmud is ultimately going to reject this idea, and insists:

No, the agent of the court is like the creditor.

The agent, like the creditor, must stay out of the lender’s house and wait for the lender to bring out the collateral.

The Talmud raises a number of challenges to this idea, but none of these challenges take hold. It doesn’t matter who is actually coming to take the money or collateral; the very act of coming to take collateral makes you like the creditor, and so you are bound by the same obligation to wait outside for the borrower to bring out the collateral — a ruling then followed by the medieval halakhic codes. 

It’s worth noting that this respect for the privacy and space of the debtor has a cost. We can imagine a debtor who lies about how much they have in the house, or brings out inferior collateral, with real financial consequences for the lender. But the Mishnah, Talmud and later codes insist that the possibility of an unscrupulous debtor is the price we have to pay for a financial system that treats everyone — those who have money to lend and those who borrow it — with the dignity and respect of distance, privacy and the integrity of their home. 

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