Bava Metzia 3

The Talmud's editors.

The opening mishnah of Bava Metzia is an oft-cited exemplar of rabbinic civil law. It presents the following scenario: Two individuals show up in court holding on to the same piece of fabric and each claims to be its true owner. They each take an oath stating that they do not own less than half and the fabric is divided between them.

In its discussion of the mishnah, the Gemara plays one of its favorite games: Let’s identify some rabbis who are not the author of this mishnah. Today, it’s Rabbi Yosei’s turn:

Let us say that the mishnah is not in accordance with Rabbi Yosei. As, if in accordance with Rabbi Yosei, doesn’t he say, “If so, what did the swindler lose?” Rather, the entire deposit will be placed until Elijah comes.

The Gemara derives Rabbi Yosei’s opinion from a case found in a mishnah on Bava Metzia 37 involving two people who each deposit money with a third person. One of the people deposited 100 and the other 200, but both claim that they are owed 200. According to the mishnah, if the holder of the funds is unsure of who actually deposited 200, each person should get 100 back and the extra 100 is held until Elijah comes and identifies who the rightful owner is. 

But Rabbi Yosei disagrees, saying that if we go this route, a person who deposited 100 and decides to be dishonest has nothing to lose — they will get their original deposit back. Instead, he suggests that the entire 300 be held for Elijah, which disincentivizes the swindler from maintaining their lie because they would be better off retracting their claim on the extra 100 and getting their money back than to get nothing.

And so, says the Gemara, if our mishnah did follow Rabbi Yosei, wouldn’t he have baked a similar incentive into the law? Instead of splitting the sheet between the two parties, shouldn’t the entire sheet be held in abeyance until Elijah comes in order to encourage the one who is dishonest to give up their claim? As a result, the mishnah must not be in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Yosei.

This short passage is but a part of the Gemara’s analysis of the first mishnah of Bava Metzia, a dense and complicated discussion that dominates the opening pages of this tractate. If your head is spinning a little more than usual as you make your way through these first pages, know that you are not alone. Medieval commentators and contemporary academics alike suggest that conversations like this one were added to the Talmud in its final stages of development by the Savoraim, the generations of rabbis who shaped the Talmud into its final form. While the Savoraim were active in the sixth and seventh centuries, their impact was not recognized fully until the 20th century, when scholars, especially those interested in how the Talmud developed over time, began to notice their editorial hand. 

Contemporary scholars credit the Savoraim for organizing the material they inherited, preserving the historic layers of the text, clarifying some unresolved legal decisions, and inserting the technical terminology that has guided Talmud students until the present day. They also added new layers of their own, including today’s conversation. 

We aren’t sure exactly what motivated the Savoraim to add sections like the one on today’s daf, which juxtaposes the legal positions of a number of rabbis of the mishnaic era. But passages such as these, appearing as they often do at the start of a tractate, expose readers to some of the most challenging elements of talmudic discourse. Some find these sections forbidding, but others find the motivation to face the challenging text and work their way through it. As they do, they develop the skills, knowledge, grit and resilience that are key to staying afloat while swimming in the sea of Talmud.

Read all of Bava Metzia 3 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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