Bava Metzia 44

Divine fairness.

The fourth chapter of Bava Metzia begins on today’s daf with an exploration of how money functions. Perhaps at some point you have taken a dollar bill in hand, gazed at it curiously, and wondered: How do you really work? You know that you can take this piece of paper into a store and exchange it for an object, but there is something almost metaphysical about the process through which an unextraordinary paper takes on value through what it represents. 

A mishnah on today’s daf explores the halakhic limitations of money, and specifically how it is not money that fully causes a transaction, but the action of the buyer physically taking the item. Here’s how the mishnah explains it: 

This is the principle: All movable property, each acquires the other. 

When two individuals are dealing with movable property — that is, items that can be transported (as opposed to land) — acquisition happens when one takes possession of their newfound object. If Rebecca is trading a jug to David for his candle, the moment that David picks up the jug or Rebecca the candle, acquisition has happened for each. One movement on either side of the equation is all that is required for acquisition to happen. Things become more complicated when money enters the equation:

(If the buyer) pulled produce, but did not give money, he cannot renege. (If the buyer) gave money but did not pull produce, he can renege.

Now Rebecca isn’t trading her jug, but using currency to acquire David’s candle. Imagine that in Rebecca’s excitement to make the purchase, she grabs the candle from David. But then a wave of buyer’s remorse hits Rebecca, and she believes that she has made a terrible error. According to the mishnah, it’s tough luck for her. Her act of “pulling” has triggered the transaction and she is obliged to pay David for his candle.

Now imagine that instead Rebecca hands her money to David, but before she takes the candle she experiences an anticipatory kind of buyer’s remorse. This time, fortune is in her favor. Because she did not “pull” the candle, the acquisition is not complete. It is not too late for her to change her mind. 

In some ways, the text understands the socially constructed nature of currency. Its value is based on a system of human trust and relationships, whereas the value of David’s candle or Rebecca’s jug is based on what they tangibly are. A dollar only carries value because it states that it is legal tender and is signed by the treasurer of the United States. It has value because a human and political system guarantees its value. 

But what happens in a case where there is no proper enforcement of transactions, when someone does in fact renege on a transaction they are legally obliged to carry out? What do the rabbis do? They beautifully show how divine powers trump earthly ones:

He Who exacted payment from the people of the generation of the flood, and from the generation of the dispersion, (i.e., that of the Tower of Babel) will exact payment from whoever does not stand by his statement. 

The rabbis might not be able to ensure that all transactions are perfectly carried out, but God has a long memory. Just as God kept track of the sins of the generation of the flood and the builders of the Tower of Babel and ultimately punished them, God will ultimately punish those who do not employ rectitude in their transactions. 

This is a beautiful text in the context of a tractate exploring civil law within a religious tradition. There is self-awareness on the part of the rabbis. They can construct a legal system that they understand as the unambiguous expression of God’s will and still recognize that it might not be perfectly implemented because of bad human action. In spite of this tragic certainty, there is faith that God will prevail and that while complete fairness might not be achieved by human beings, it can be found on the divine level.

Read all of Bava Metzia 44 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 12th, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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