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Bava Metzia 42

Buried treasures.

We learn today in a mishnah:

One who deposited coins with another, who bound it and slung it behind them, or conveyed them to their minor son or daughter, or locked (the door) before them inappropriately, (the bailee) is liable, as he did not safeguard them in the manner of bailees.

But if they safeguarded them in the manner of bailees, they are exempt.

A bailee who does not take appropriate precautions to secure money with which they are entrusted is held responsible should they be stolen. One who does is not. While we expect a bailee to uphold certain standards for safeguarding coins, we are aware that even if they do so, they cannot fully guarantee their safety. So if the bailee has met the standard of practice, then they have met their responsibility and are not held accountable should the coins be stolen.

The mishnah gives us three examples of insufficient safeguarding — slinging it over the back, giving it to their kids to hold, or locking it in an unsafe manner. You might think this list is exhaustive and that any other means of safeguarding coins counts as typical of the ways bailees safeguard items, but the Gemara takes things in a completely different direction:

Shmuel says: There is safeguarding for money only in the ground. 

The only way to really keep money safe, says Shmuel, is to bury it in the ground, so this is what bailees must do. This was apparently not only the standard for bailees, but advised practice for everyone, as Rabbi Yitzhak teaches:

A person should always divide his money into three; one-third in the ground, one-third in business, and one-third in his possession.

Rabbi Yitzhak offers an early take on financial diversification. Keep some money for daily needs, some invested in business, and some saved in the ground. This may have been solid advice for storing money that was neither immediately needed nor invested, but then the thieves evolved:

And now that rummagers (who dig to find and steal buried property) are commonplace, there is safeguarding for money only in the beams of the roof. 

Burying coins in the ground may have once sufficed. But then people started digging around in search of hidden treasure, so it became the standard to hide coins in the beams of a house. But eventually thieves got wise to this too. The Gemara continues:

And now that dismantlers are commonplace, there is safeguarding for money only between the bricks.

Once thieves started dismantling houses looking for money in the roof, the law was changed so that money was stored in bricks. Can you guess what happened next? Thieves came along and started tapping on the bricks to identify where coins were hidden in the walls. So the law was changed again to require that money hidden in walls be within a handbreadth of the ceiling or floor, zones that do not reveal the presence of coins when tapped. (This is according to the Gemara, I didn’t verify it for myself.)

In the end, the mishnah’s stipulation that bailees should safeguard money in the typical manner doesn’t really tell us much, because the typical manner changes as the standard practice of both thieves and bailees change. But it might tell us exactly what we need to know. Bailees are indeed held to the standard of bailees, and that standard changes over time in response to the ways people are prone to act and the technology they have at their fingertips in the age in which they live. 

Read all of Bava Metzia 42 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 10th, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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