Bava Metzia 35

Recovering lost jewels.

Our daf relates a case in which a person deposits jewels with an unpaid caretaker. Some time later, when the owner comes to collect the jewels, the caretaker claims to have lost them, so the owner sues the caretaker. Rav Nahman, presiding over the case, rules in favor of the owner. He finds the caretaker negligent and orders him to compensate the owner for the value of the jewels. But the caretaker refuses to pay, so Rav Nahman takes an extreme approach:

Rav Nahman went and gave instructions to repossess the caretaker’s manor and sell it to pay for the jewels. Ultimately, not only were the jewels found, but they had also increased in value. Rav Nahman said: The jewels return to their initial owner, and the manor returns to its owner.

When the caretaker refuses to pay, Rav Nahman takes the dramatic step of confiscating his home and turning it over to the owner of the jewels. When the jewels are later discovered in the home, Rav Nahman grants them to their original owner who then gives the caretaker back his home.

Note that the caretaker never took an oath that he had been responsible with the jewels. If he had, he might have saved himself some trouble. According to the opening mishnah of our chapter, if an unpaid caretaker cannot return an item to its owner, they can take an oath that they were not negligent while safeguarding an object that has gone missing and then they are not held responsible for the loss. If they do not wish to take an oath, they can instead compensate the owner for the loss, by which means they take possession of the object in their care. If the object is ever recovered, it now belongs to the caretaker. 

But in today’s case of the missing jewels, the caretaker neither took an oath nor compensated the owner for the loss (despite, as the size of his home suggests, being financially capable of doing so).

After hearing about the case, Rava, a student of Rav Nahman, asks him: 

Isn’t this the same as the case of a caretaker who paid the owner and did not wish to take an oath? 

To Rava’s thinking, this case is similar to the mishnah. After all, the caretaker refused to take an oath and ultimately compensated the owner. Rava now recounts:

Rav Nahman did not answer me, and he did well that he did not answer me. 

There’s an obvious difference between these two cases: In the earlier mishnah, the caretaker readily compensated the owner of the lost property. In Rav Nahman’s case, not only did the caretaker not pay freely, he refused to pay even after a court order. In fact, the difference between the cases might explain Rav Nahman’s drastic choice to confiscate the caretaker’s home. The caretaker could easily have sworn an oath or compensated the owner. Not only did he refuse to do either, he also disobeyed a court order to compensate the owner. That is perhaps why Rav Nahman dealt so aggressively with him and confiscated his home.

Rav Nahman never gives Rava the answer to the latter’s question — he remains silent — but he doesn’t have to. Rava figures it out himself, and is grateful that his teacher gave him the space to do so. A wonderful reminder for contemporary parents, pastors and pedagogues that sometimes silence is a more powerful tool than offering an answer.

Read all of Bava Metzia 35 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 3rd, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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