Bava Metzia 33

Isn’t it ironic?

As the airplane safety video always insists, secure your own oxygen mask before assisting others. Sometimes, we need to prioritize ourselves. The mishnah on today’s daf agrees: 

If one finds his lost item and his father’s lost item, his lost item takes precedence. His lost item and his teacher’s lost item, his takes precedence.

Whether it’s a question of picking up the lost item and taking it home, or paying to take care of it (in the case of an animal, for example), the mishnah insists that one may — perhaps should — prioritize their own lost property over even those of their parents and teachers who, we know from countless examples in the Gemara, are deserving of deference and respect.  In fact, the very first thing that the Gemara does with this mishnah is demand an explanation:

From where are these matters derived?

Rav Yehuda says Rav says the verse states: “Only so that there shall be no needy among you” (Deuteronomy 15:4). This means your property takes precedence over that of any other person.

Rashi explains that the Talmud is reading the biblical verse as a command: One should not intentionally become needy, which means taking basic precautions with your own stuff. But the rabbis continue by cautioning us not to take this too far: 

And Rav Yehuda says that Rav says: Anyone who fulfills this with regard to his propertyultimately comes to that. 

Rav seems to be saying that anyone who always prioritizes self over others — which the Torah (as read by the rabbis) seems to think is the key to avoiding poverty — is actually destined to become poor. 

It’s worth noting that both statements are attributed to Rav Yehuda in the name of Rav. This isn’t a case where two rabbis with different opinions disagree with each other. Instead, the same rabbis first insist that returning one’s own lost item before another’s is a Torah commandment, and then insist that anyone who actually does this is fated to become poor themselves. What are we to make of this contradiction?

Rashi explains that even though the Torah states that one should take care of oneself first, one should act lifnim meshorat hadin, beyond the letter of the law, and not shirk acts of lovingkindness and charity while employing this verse as an excuse. One who mistreats others, for Rashi, is destined to need the support of others to survive.

Rashi’s interpretation offers us a powerful lesson for life: We should prioritize others even when we are legally permitted to prioritize ourselves. From an ethical perspective, it’s a valuable lesson for us all. From a historical perspective, today’s daf may also provide evidence of a cultural shift from the second-century Mishnah to the third- or fourth-century Talmud.

But however we read the potential contradiction, today’s daf testifies that finding the balance between serving others and self-preservation is not a new one; it wasn’t invented with the advent of airplane safety videos. Instead, this is a question that we have been asking, and debating, for over 1,500 years.

Read all of Bava Metzia 33 on Sefaria.

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

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