Bava Metzia 116

Accidental roommates.

Today’s daf continues our discussion of renters and landlords with a mishnah that sets up what I imagine might be one of the most awkward roommate situations ever: 

A house and an upper story: If the upper story was broken and the owner of the house does not want to repair it, the resident of the upper story can go down and live below until the owner repairs the upper story for him.

Suppose a householder is renting out their attic, which has become unsafe. If the landlord refuses to make the attic habitable, the mishnah requires them to make room for the renter downstairs. 

The Talmud asks an important follow-up question: How damaged does the upper story actually have to be for the renter to become entitled to move in downstairs? The Talmud offers us two different answers: 

Rav says: Most of it was damaged.

And Shmuel says: Four handsbreadths. 

Why the distinction? 

Rav says: A person can reside partially on below and partially above. And Shmuel says: With a break of four, a person cannot reside partially below and partially above.

The question is whether a person can continue to reside in an attic when a significant hole of four handbreadths has developed in the floor. According to Rav, with a hole of that size, the solution is to store a few items downstairs and live partially on each level. But according to Shmuel, it’s not reasonable to live on both floors that way and as soon as the damage is significant enough that the renter needs to move some of their items downstairs, they should be allowed to fully move downstairs. Rabbi Isaac Alfasi says that the law follows Shmuel, so once a hole in the attic floor becomes larger than four handsbreadths, the renter has a case to move out.

The Talmud next explores the legal mechanism by which the renter moves downstairs.

Rather, Rav Ashi said: Where he said to him: I am renting to you this upper story, which is on top of this house. As he rendered the house as liened with regard to the upper story. 

According to Rav Ashi, when the owner of the house designated the upper story in the lease agreement, they were essentially establishing the lower story as collateral. That is the legal reason the renter can move in when a hole opens up in their floor. 

This whole sugya sets up what would be, in my view, a great premise for a sitcom: The renter, after all, has perverse incentives to be a terrible roommate so the landlord is driven to repair their attic. (Stay tuned for tomorrow’s daf, which explores the question of whether the landlord has to move out of their own quarters to make more room for the renter, so we can paint a fuller picture of what could one day be a hilarious television show.)

But on a deeper level, the debate between Rav and Shmuel may strike a nerve with modern debates over hoarding and decluttering, minimalist and maximalist lifestyles that have at their heart this basic question: What makes a home?

For Rav, home is a place to find adequate shelter, even if your belongings are elsewhere. For Shmuel, it’s more — it’s also the place you keep your things, the items you’ve collected during your life to help make your life easier, or that remind you of places and people you care about. And the mishnah and Rav Ashi remind us that a home may be all of those things, but it’s also a space established as yours by a legal system, and upheld as such by the principles and ethics of that system.

Read all of Bava Metzia 116 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 24, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

Discover More

Kiddushin 42

Challenging an agent.

Gittin 88

Forced divorce.

Kiddushin 70

Honor and leadership.