Talmudic pages

Bava Metzia 40

Contents may settle.

We’ve all been there. You sit down at the breakfast table and open a new box of cereal only to find that the top half is all air. Have you been cheated? No, you have been warned. The label on the product clearly states: Contents may settle during shipping.

Although modern bag-in-box cereal packaging wasn’t invented until 1924, the rabbis understood that the visible quantity of stored food might diminish over time through no fault of its guardian. A mishnah on today’s daf begins: 

One who deposits produce with another, the caretaker deducts the decrease: For wheat and for rice, nine half-kav per kor; for barley and millet, nine kav per kor; for spelt and flaxseed, three se’a per kor.

The entire calculation is according to the measure, and the entire calculation is according to the time elapsed. 

A person going out of town deposits their grain with a guardian for safekeeping. In the interim, the grain might settle, appearing to be less bulky, or it might spoil. Therefore, the mishnah rules that the caretaker is permitted to pay back the owner with different grain from which they can deduct a standard amount to adjust for the expected settling or spoilage. 

But should we always anticipate a decrease in produce stored over time? Sometimes, we might actually expect an increase. The Gemara explains how this might happen:

In what case is this statement said? Where he measured during the season of the threshing floor and returned to the owner during the season of the threshing floor. But where he measured during the season of the threshing floor and returned to the owner during the rainy season, he does not deduct the decrease because it expanded.

If the produce was stored and then returned at the same time of year, the mishnah’s statement makes sense. But at more humid times of year, produce can expand as the moisture in the air puffs up the grain, making it look larger. If that happens, no decrease would be deducted by the guardian, since the produce naturally expands during the rainy season, taking up more room while weighing the same. 

But the Gemara isn’t satisfied with this suggestion:

Rav Pappa said to Abaye: If so, the jug (in which the grain is placed) should burst. There was an incident and the jug burst. If you wish, say (the volume contracted) due to compression. 

The Gemara understands that if you pack a container full to the top and the produce expands, the container would burst and you’ll lose all of your product, not just a small amount due to normal settling or erosion. And in fact, the Gemara relates a situation in which that is precisely what happened. A standard deduction wouldn’t suffice to cover that loss, so clearly that’s not the situation the mishnah is describing. Rather, it must be talking only about a case where produce was deposited loosely and it settled over time, making it appear as a lesser volume but still the same weight. In such a case, you aren’t being cheated. The contents have just settled.

Read all of Bava Metzia 40 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 8th, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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