Talmudic pages

Bava Metzia 20

The argument that shook the study house.

In contrast to our previous mishnah, the mishnah on today’s daf lists documents that, when found, should be returned to their presumed owner. One of these is a ma’aseh beit din, a court order. The Gemara brings the following case which had been referenced previously:

A bill of divorce was found in the court of Rav Huna, and it was written that the bill of divorce was written in Sheviri City, which is located on the Rakhis River.

Rav Huna said about this: “We are concerned for the possibility that there are two cities named Sheviri, and that this bill of divorce may belong to someone else who lives in the other Sheviri, and therefore it should not be returned.”

Rav Hisda said to Rabba: “Go out and examine this halakhah, as in the evening Rav Huna will ask you about it.”

At first glance, it’s not immediately clear how this story relates to our mishnah. A get, a divorce document, is not the same as a court order. And we already learned yesterday that a found get is sometimes not returned. As Rav Huna points out today, we should worry about the possibility of returning it to a different party with the same name, which could be disastrous. 

Rav Hisda and Rabba are both students of Rav Huna. Rav Hisda prompts Rabba to return to their teacher’s beit midrash with a source to explain what should be done in this situation:

Rabba went out, examined it, and discovered a relevant source, as we learned in the mishnah: With regard to any court enactment, the one who found it must return it to its presumed owner.

Now we see the connection to our mishnah: Since this get was found in the court (and/or, according to Rashi, has been validated in court), it now falls under the category of a court enactment that can be returned. We don’t worry about the unlikely possibility that there’s another person of the same name in another city of the same name, just as we don’t worry about this possibility with other court enactments.

However Rav Avram, a fellow student, revives our earlier skepticism. 

Rav Amram said to Rabba: How can the Master resolve the halakhah in the case of a bill of divorce, which is a ritual matter, from the mishnah, which discusses monetary matters? 

The function and stakes of a divorce document differs from, say, a loan document. With the latter, only money is at stake. But while there are monetary implications to the giving of a get, the primary worry is violation of a Torah-level prohibition: Accidental adultery which could happen if a woman (erroneously) thinks she’s divorced and remarries. Thus, if we err and give someone the wrong get, the consequences could be much more dire. Who’s to say, then, that the rules of a get can be extrapolated from those of monetary documents?

The answer, seemingly, is that no extrapolation is needed.

Rabba said to him: Fool, we learned in the mishnah that this halakhah applies in the case of documents of halitzah and documents of refusal as well, which are ritual matters.

Our mishnah itself referenced other examples of documents that sever marital or levirate bonds and thus govern matters of prohibition and permission; it says these, too, can be returned when there’s no concern that the document is illegitimate.

While the halakhic discussion ends here, there’s a coda to the narrative of our disputing sages:

At that point, the supporting cedar beam of the study hall dislodged. One sage said: “It was due to my fortune that it dislodged, as you spoke to me offensively,” and the other sage said: “It was due to my fortune that it dislodged, as it was you who spoke to me offensively.”

The dispute in Rav Huna’s beit midrash has gotten so intense that it reverberates in the physical surroundings. Each sage feels the beam was broken on account of his being insulted. 

Practically every page of Gemara features argumentation between sages, but the emotional register of these arguments can vary. Abaya and Rava, for example (two of the Talmud’s most famous interlocutors), argue constantly but never resort to invective or take personal offense. Today, however, the exchange between Rav Amram and Rabba veers into personal insult. How much of this is due to the topic (as opposed to the context), the name-calling (or the particulars of their relationship to which we are not privy) is hard to say.

Read all of Bava Metzia 20 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 19th, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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