Bava Metzia 17

Deny and deflect.

As we know, when two parties make conflicting statements about ownership of an item, the rabbis often opt to have one or both of the parties take an oath to help them adjudicate the matter. On today’s daf, we read about a case in which a person disqualifies themselves from making an oath based on their own testimony.

Rabba bar bar Hanna says that Rabbi Yohanan says: If one person says to another: “I have 100 dinars in your possession,” and the other says: “Nothing of yours is in my possession.” And the witnesses testify concerning him that, in fact, he does have such a debt, and subsequently the debtor said: “I repaid the debt,” — in that case the debtor assumes the presumptive status of one who denies his debts with regard to that money.

The case is as follows: One person comes and claims that they lent their friend 100 dinars. The accused responds that in fact they have nothing of the claimant’s in their possession. Then witnesses come and testify that, in fact, there was such a debt. At which point the accused clarifies that the debt was repaid. According to the Gemara, in such a case the debtor is no longer trusted to make an oath (stating that they do not owe their accuser any money) because they are presumed to have denied their debt when in fact they had previously owed one, which calls their reliability into question. 

One might reasonably object that this is unfair. The debtor’s testimony was consistent: Their first statement says that they are not in possession of the money, and the second explains that this is because they already repaid the debt. Why should this make them ineligible to take an oath?

It appears that the Gemara doubts the debtor’s truthfulness because they did not acknowledge the debt from the start. Had they stated from the start that they had already repaid the debt, we would be more prone to believe them. But since they acknowledged the debt only after the witnesses came to testify that a loan took place, they become suspect — so much so that even an oath can’t make them trustworthy again in the eyes of the court. 

To give some color to this generic situation, the Gemara shares an anecdote about a similar occurrence:

Shabbtai, son of Rabbi Marinus, wrote (a pledge) to give his daughter-in-law a cloak of fine wool in her marriage contract, and he accepted upon himself (the status of a guarantor). Her marriage contract was lost.

Shabbtai said to her: “These matters never occurred.” Witnesses then came and said: “Yes, he did write her this pledge.” Ultimately, he said to them: “I paid it.”

This case came before Rabbi Hiyya. He said to Shabbtai: “You have assumed the presumptive status of one who denies his debts with regard to that cloak.”

In this case, Shabbtai pledges to give his daughter-in-law a wool cloak as part of her marriage contract, but when she loses the contract, she also loses the proof that she is entitled to it. Instead of giving it to her, Shabbtai takes advantage of the moment and denies that he ever promised it. 

This situation seems even more straightforward than the case above, in which the accused denies only that he has anything belonging to the lender — not that there was never a loan to begin with. Here, Shabbtai promised a coat, denied it and then changed his story once witnesses exposed his lie. 

It’s not surprising then that Rabbi Hiyya holds Shabbtai accountable. He will need stronger evidence to support his claim that he has already given his daughter-in-law a cloak. And it is not such a stretch to say that his presumptive status as a good father-in-law should be questioned as well.

Read all of Bava Metzia 17 on Sefaria.

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

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