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Bava Metzia 2

Welcome to Tractate Bava Metzia.

King Solomon was legendary for building the Temple, presiding over Israel during a period of unprecedented peace, jaw-dropping wealth, an abundance of wives and concubines and, perhaps most of all, wisdom. But he wasn’t always wise. In 1 Kings 3, God appears to Solomon in a dream and, genie-like, offers to grant a request. After considering, Solomon asks for the wisdom to tender just judgements in disputes between his people. God is so impressed with the maturity of this request, he grants Solomon not only extraordinary wisdom but also wealth and honor.

The next day, Solomon demonstrates his newfound wisdom when two women come to him to settle a charged dispute. The same week, both women had given birth and one of them had, in her sleep, tragically rolled onto her baby and suffocated it. When she discovered her newborn was dead, she surreptitiously placed him in the arms of the sleeping mother and took the latter’s living baby as her own. Now, both women claim the live baby.

Solomon famously solved the dispute by ordering a sword brought to divide the living child in half, offering a piece to each woman. The woman who had stolen the other’s child agreed to this barbaric solution, but the other was horrified and said the first could have the living baby. It was to this woman — the true mother — that Solomon gave the baby. Not only was she in fact the mother of the infant, she was also obviously more fit to parent.

Tractate Bava Metzia, which we begin today, deals with all manner of ownership disputes between parties, and it opens with a series of cases in which two parties claim the same item, in whole or in part. Rarely are the stakes as high as the life of an infant, but resolving these disagreements is important for a smoothly functioning society nonetheless. We may not have Solomon to adjudicate, but the rabbis devote considerable energy to building a series of laws and principles to teach us how to think through possible scenarios. Let’s start with the opening mishnah:

If two (came to court) holding a garment, and this one says: “I found it,” and that one says: “I found it;” this one says: “All of it is mine,” and that one says: “All of it is mine,” — This one takes an oath that he does not have ownership of less than half of it, and that one takes an oath that he does not have ownership of less than half of it, and they divide it.

Like the women who came before Solomon, these two men come to court claiming ownership over the same thing, in this case a garment. The mishnah prescribes that each should take an oath that they do not own less than half of it and then divide it between them, meaning the coat is sold and they split the money.

Then we get a slightly more complicated scenario:

If this one says: “All of it is mine,” and that one says: “Half of it is mine,” the one who claims all of it takes an oath that he does not have ownership of less than three parts (out of four) and the one who claims half takes an oath that he does not have ownership of less than one-quarter of it. This one takes three parts, and that one takes one-quarter.

The mishnah’s reasoning is as follows: Since the first person claimed the whole garment and the second claimed half, the dispute is really only over half of the garment since they agree the other half belongs to the first claimant. So once they have sworn appropriately, they divide the disputed half, which leaves one party with a quarter of the garment and the other with three-quarters.

Similarly, says the mishnah, if two people claim the same animal, each takes an oath and they divide the value of the animal. But all this so far assumes they do not accept one another’s claims or have witnesses to support what they are saying. When these get thrown into the mix, things get more complicated. This, and much more, is to come. Welcome to Tractate Bava Metzia.

Read all of Bava Metzia 2 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 1st, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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