Bava Metzia 45

Means of exchange.

You really want some cereal, but you’re out of milk so you head out to your local market to buy some. You hand the storekeeper some cash, collect your change, and head for the exit knowing that you are a short car ride away from satisfying your craving.

As you drive home, you begin to wonder: At what point in the process did the milk actually become yours? When you picked it up off the shelf? When you handed money to the storekeeper? When you carried the milk out the door?

Nowadays, a transaction is completed when you pay for the item. Transferring money results in a transfer of ownership, whether you pay physically or digitally. But as we saw yesterday, the rabbis of the Talmud didn’t all see it that way. On today’s daf, we read about a dispute that suggests that not everyone agrees that your milk becomes yours when you hand over the money:

It was stated (that there is a dispute between) Rav and Levi. 

One said: Money can be an exchange of property. 

And one said: Money cannot be an exchange.

While there is some confusion about who said what, the debate is clear. One rabbi says that transferring money from one person to another creates a transaction; the other says it does not. The former opinion makes sense, because that’s how it is for us. So what’s behind the latter one?

Rav Pappa said: What is the reason of the one who says that money cannot be an exchange? It is because the mind is on the form minted and the form is apt to be canceled. 

Money has worth not because of its intrinsic value, but because the government declares it legal tender. As Rav Pappa suggests, when the storekeeper accepts your money in exchange for the milk, they are doing so based upon the form of the money (i.e. its denomination) and not the value of the metal. And the value inherent in the form of the coin is determined by the ruling authority, which could declare the coin worthless at any time. Therefore, the coins do not have actual value and cannot be used to help you acquire the milk. Since the value of currency is neither stable nor dependable, one cannot take possession of an item merely by giving money to its current owner.

So does that mean one of these sages wants to do away with money altogether? While it might appear so at first glance, a clarification that follows suggests that the rabbi’s position is not so extreme. 

Although money does not effect an exchange, it is acquired by exchange.

It’s not the act of handing over the money through which you acquire the milk. That happens only when you physically take hold of the milk. And as you do, the store owner acquires the money that you are using to pay for it. So the money does not effect the exchange, but it is transferred from one party to the other as part of the exchange. 

While there is more to say about the nuances of the rabbinic approach to buying and selling, I suddenly find myself hungering for a bowl of cereal. We’ll have to revisit this topic, as will the Gemara, another time.

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