Bava Metzia 27

Parking sheep.

While we’ve spent the last several pages diving into the question of lost items — what makes them identifiable, when one is or isn’t obligated to strive for their return, etc. — the mishnah and subsequent Gemara on today’s daf finally examines the versesupon which these laws are based, Deuteronomy 22:1–3:

If you see your fellow Israelite’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your peer. If your fellow Israelite does not live near you or you do not know who (the owner) is, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your peer claims it; then you shall give it back. You shall do the same with that person’s ass; you shall do the same with that person’s garment; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow Israelite loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent.

When approaching the biblical text, the rabbis generally assume a lack of superfluity. The text is considered perfect and intentional; therefore if a detail seems extraneous, it must teach us something beyond the intuitive meaning. In Deuteronomy, we’re told that you should return “anything that your fellow Israelite loses.”

If so, asks the mishnah, why must we also specify the example of a garment in the following verse? Wouldn’t that fall under the broader category of anything lost? Here is the mishnah’s answer:

The garment was also included in the generalization that one must return all of these items. And why did it emerge from the generalization that it should be specified? To draw an analogy to it and to say to you: What is notable about a garment?

It is notable in that there are distinguishing marks concerning it and it has claimants asserting ownership, and its finder is obligated to proclaim his find. So too with regard to any item concerning which there are distinguishing marks and it has claimants asserting ownership, its finder is obligated to proclaim his find.

The rabbinic answer is that this specific example of a garment defines and limits the general category of “anything your fellow Israelite loses.” The garment is our paradigmatic case. Just as a garment can have distinct, recognizable features, and an owner would likely seek to recover it, so too anything that meets these two criteria falls under the broader category of lost things one must return. 

In the Gemara, Rava points out that a garment isn’t the only seemingly superfluous detail in these verses, which also mention examples of an ox, sheep or donkey. Aren’t they too lost objects? Why does the Torah mention them specifically?

While Rava finds potential chiddushim (new concepts) to be learned from the ox and the donkey — that one returns an animal even based on its equipment’s identifying marks and that we return even the shearing of an animal’s tail — when it comes to the question of sheep, the Gemara is stumped. In a somewhat remarkable moment, the rabbis throw up their hands and admit that with regard to the sheep they can’t find any meaningful detail that it comes to include.

As mentioned, when it comes to the language of the Torah, the sages presume perfection and intentionality: that the Torah is full of secrets to be mined, and every word or example serves a purpose. My first Gemara teacher, Dena Weiss, gave the helpful analogy of a parking lot. When a word or phrase seems superfluous, the rabbis have not only the opportunity but often the need to park a halakhic car in the available spot.

Often these “midrash halakhah battles” consist of rabbis offering differing suggestions of which halakhic car gets parked on which word. The back-and-forth that ensues involves each party either finding a new spot in which to park a halakhah that their sparring partner parked elsewhere, or their interlocutor finding another halakhah to park in the newly available spot just revealed. Theoretically, this back-and-forth could go on indefinitely. However, the battles usually end in one of two ways: Either one party says they don’t hold by a given halakhah (and therefore don’t need a spot for it), or the other party says they don’t darshen (interpret) that word (and so don’t need a halakhah to fill the spot).

But on today’s daf, the Gemara acknowledges that the word “sheep” constitutes a parking spot, yet they don’t have a halakhic car to park there. Despite a general orientation toward the text as fully intentional and endlessly full of meaning, occasionally the rabbis admit that some words can just be words, and some examples simply show up by chance.

Read all of Bava Metzia 27 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 26th, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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