Bava Metzia 15

Buying stolen goods.

According to Title 18 of the United States Code, buying expensive goods that you know are stolen is a federal crime. And this crime is not exclusive to the United States; similar laws exist in many other modern countries

On today’s daf, however, the Talmud takes a strikingly different approach to the topic. If someone buys a piece of property they know is stolen, and then the rightful owner repossesses it, presumably through some kind of legal action what happens?

Rav says: He has the right to money, but not enhancement. 

When the true owner repossesses the field, the thief is obligated to reimburse the purchaser of the stolen property what they paid for the field, but not for the value of any improvements that they made to the property when it was in their possession. Just because you knowingly bought stolen property doesn’t mean you didn’t lay out the money for it and you therefore have the right to reimbursement. But that’s not the only possibility: 

And Shmuel says that he does not have even money.

Shmuel disagrees with Rav, insisting that if you choose to knowingly purchase stolen land, you lose the land with no right to compensation from anyone.

On the face of it, both Rav and Shmuel think that one who knowingly purchased stolen goods did the wrong thing and should experience financial loss as a result. But the Talmud’s subsequent discussion turns this reading on its head. The original dispute between Rav and Shmuel seems to be only about the consequences facing the purchaser of stolen goods. But the Talmud suggests that actually they both agree that the purchaser knew they were buying stolen goods and that the sale would be legally ineffective. Where they disagree is on the purchaser’s motivation. 

With regard to what do they disagree? Rav holds he knows that he does not have land, and he resolved to give it as a deposit. 

But, let him say to him it is as a deposit! He thought he would not accept. 

According to this interpretation, Rav believes the purchaser had money he didn’t know what to do with and wanted the thief to hold it for him as a deposit. But knowing that the thief would not willingly take on that responsibility, the purchaser pretended to purchase the land in order to force the thief to hold the money for him until the court forced its return once the theft was discovered. Convoluted, but OK. 

And Shmuel holds that he knows that he does not have land, and he resolved to give it as a gift.

But, let him say to him it is as a gift! The matter would be embarrassing for him.

According to this interpretation, Shmuel believes the purchaser wanted to gift money to the thief, perhaps perceiving that one who steals from others is likely someone with unmet financial needs. But publicly admitting to that need can be embarrassing, so the purchaser pretended to purchase the land knowing that the money he paid would never be returned.

Fascinatingly, and unlike the U.S. criminal code, the Talmud’s discussion concludes by affirming Rava’s position, that one who knowingly purchases stolen land is in fact compensated for the land but not the enhancement. But more than just a different legal conclusion, this discussion represents a totally different approach to interrogating those who benefit from a theft. According to the Talmud, Rava and Shmuel insist that purchasing stolen property is so obviously wrong that no one would knowingly do so without an ulterior motive. They approach the purchaser in a spirit of generosity, and then use that generous spirit to conceive an ulterior motive to determine the outcome of the case. And while we might be skeptical of whether that is an accurate read on human motivation, that’s a world that I personally would like to live in.

Read all of Bava Metzia 15 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 14th, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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