Bava Metzia 36

Angel of death.

The most famous episode associated with the Angel of Death is the tenth plague of Passover, where the angel passes over the houses of the Israelites, but strikes down every first-born Egyptian. Today, we learn about a different side of the Angel of Death: Instead of dramatically bringing supernatural death, the rabbis see him as a bringer of ordinary death by natural causes.

Continuing our discussion of caretakers in temporary possession of other people’s animals, we encounter a conflict between Abaye and Rava:

In the case of one who was negligent in safeguarding an animal, and it went into a marsh, where it was susceptible to thieves and predatory animals, but it died in its typical manner despite this negligence (i.e., it was neither stolen nor devoured), Abaye says in the name of Rabba: “The caretaker is liable to pay.” Rava says in the name of Rabba: “The caretaker is exempt from doing so.”

Abaye holds the negligent caretaker liable for the death of the animal due to negligence in allowing it to escape, even though it apparently died of natural causes. Rava, meanwhile, finds the same caretaker exempt because, he argues, the animal was going to die anyway. Curiously, both cite Rabba as their authority.

To smooth this over, the Gemara tries to reconcile their views. First, the Gemara argues, even Rava, who says the caretaker is exempt, might be persuaded that the gases of the marsh killed the animal and therefore he is liable. And even Abaye, who holds the caretaker liable, might admit that the caretaker is exempt because:

We say with regard to the Angel of Death: What difference is there to me if the animal was here, and what difference is there to me if the animal was there?

In other words, the Angel of Death, who brings about a natural death, was on his way. The animal’s location was irrelevant. This round of argument brings us no nearer to solving the problem, so we have another round of concessions:

And Abaye concedes that if the animal returned from the marsh to its owner’s house and died there, the caretaker is exempt. What is the reason? Because the animal returned, there is no justification to say that the air of the marsh killed it.

And Rava concedes that if the animal was stolen from the marsh and then died in its typical manner in the house of the thief the caretaker is liable. What is the reason? Because even if the Angel of Death spared the life of the animal, it would still be standing in the house of the thief (due to the negligence of the caretaker).

Though Abaye is inclined to hold the caretaker liable, he can envision a variation on the scenario — the animal made it back to the caretaker’s home and died there — in which the caretaker is ultimately exempt. And though Rava is inclined to consider the caretaker exempt, he too can envision a variation on the scenario — in which the animal is stolen from the marsh and died of natural causes at the home of the thief — in which he would hold the caretaker liable. The discussion continues for several more lines and it is ultimately up to later authorities to set a broader rule about liability: If there’s a connection between the caretaker’s negligence and the animal’s death, the caretaker is liable. But if there is no obvious connection, no liability attaches.

Let’s go back to the Angel of Death. In addition to the halakhic conclusion, this passage presents a picture of the Angel of Death that departs from what we might ordinarily think. Instead of an agent of supernaturally ordained death, like the tenth plague on Egypt, the Angel of Death here is simply responsible for deaths of natural causes — even of animals.

Read all of Bava Metzia 36 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 4th, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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