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Bava Metzia 32

Loading and unloading.

In our exploration of returning lost objects, two different questions continue to surface. One concerns ownership; whether the found object is now considered ownerless and the finder may keep it. The other concerns obligation; whether the finder is obligated to take pains to return it. This second question moves beyond the discussion of wrongful acquisition or theft and into the much grayer realm in which the rabbis attempt to quantify the effort and consideration we owe one another. In addressing this question, the mishnah on today’s daf touches on a separate but related topic stemming from a verse in Exodus: the obligation of unloading a donkey that has collapsed under its burden.

If one unloaded a burden from an animal collapsing under its weight and then later (when the animal recovered) loaded it back onto the animal, and later unloaded and loaded it again, even if this scenario repeats itself four or five times, he is obligated to continue unloading and loading, as it is stated: “If you see the donkey of him that hates you collapsed under its burden, you shall forgo passing him by; you shall release [the burden] with [the donkey’s owner]” (Exodus 23:5). It is derived from the verse that one is obligated to perform the action as needed, even several times. 

… There is a mitzvah by Torah law to unload a burden, but there is no mitzvah to load it. Rabbi Shimon says: There is even a mitzvah to load the burden.

To prevent undue loss of property, the Torah prescribes that one should unburden a collapsed donkey — even if that donkey belongs to someone who happens to hate you. But what about reloading the animal? Is that also required by the Torah? Rabbi Shimon, at least, thinks it is.

Later on the Gemara strengthens Rabbi Shimon’s position. It notes that another verse, Deuteronomy 22:4, which employs the verb “raise up” in a similar law, seems to more explicitly imply the obligation to reload the animal. This leads to an emendation of the rabbis’ position:

Rather, there is a mitzvah by Torah law to unload the burden for free, but there is no mitzvah to load it for free; rather, the mitzvah is performed with remuneration. Rabbi Shimon says: There is also a mitzvah to load it for free.

Everyone, ultimately, agrees that both unloading and loading the animal are obligatory; the only question is whether someone can insist on compensation for the latter. There’s something, at least to the rabbis, that makes unloading a more obvious or pressing requirement than loading. But if we accept that both are mentioned in the Torah, why might unloading take precedence?

The Gemara references two factors that make the case of unloading more stringent: the (greater) potential for loss of money, and the suffering of the animal (tza’ar ba’alei chayim). This spawns a conversation that continues for the rest of the daf as to the precise status of the mitzvah to prevent animal suffering: Is it a Torah-level requirement, as well, or only rabbinic? Rava argues that this is a Torah law, and the Gemara brings countless proofs to support or counter his assertion. 

Ultimately, while the sugya doesn’t definitively rule on the halakhah, most later commentaries end up deciding like Rava’s opinion — cruelty to animals is forbidden by Torah law. In large part, this is because the Gemara spends so much time dissecting and probing his view. Often, commentators assume that if the Gemara seems particularly interested in challenging and defending a particular viewpoint, it’s likely because that’s the halakhah we follow.So the obligation to unload animals ultimately combines both our positive obligations towards those around us — to not only avoid harm but actively provide support — and our obligation to prevent unnecessary non-human suffering.

Read all of Bava Metzia 32 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 31st, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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