Bava Metzia 48

He who exacted payment.

How do we know when a sale is final? On yesterday’s daf, Reish Lakish was quoted as saying that pulling an object — not exchanging money — is the only way to enact a sale, both biblically and rabbinically. But according to Rabbi Yohanan, pulling finalizes a sale only for rabbinic law. According to biblical law, says Rabbi Yohanan, the exchange of money (without pulling) enacts a sale. 

This becomes relevant when we consider cases in which a party wants to back out of a sale. For example: What if you paid for your coffee, but the barista hasn’t yet handed you the cup — can you change your mind and demand a refund? What if you put a down payment on a property and the seller wants to back out of the purchase?

A verbal commitment to buy, all agree, does not finalize a sale. But it’s still bad form to back out. Therefore, according to a beraita:

One who negotiates verbally did not acquire the item. But if the person reneges on his commitment, the sages are displeased with him.

According to this beraita, it is not illegal to back out after commiting verbally to a deal, because the sale is not enacted with words alone. However, the sages consider it bad practice. Indeed, regarding the one who backs out of a verbal agreement to contract a sale, the Gemara also brings this tradition:

But He Who exacted payment from the people of the generation of the flood, and from the people of the generation of the dispersion, and from the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, and from the Egyptians in the Red Sea, will in the future exact payment from whoever does not stand by his statement.

A human court can’t punish someone who backs out of a verbal agreement to buy or sell something, but God — who punished the generation of the flood for their thievery and many others as well — will extract divine retribution. This curse certainly raises the level of disapproval a notch.

On today’s daf, the rabbis draw a distinction between these two sources. The first, in which the rabbis merely disapprove, refers to verbal agreements where no money has changed hands. But the second, in which God’s retribution is expected, must refer to cases where money has changed hands. As we said, money changing hands does not legally complete a sale, but the commitment to sell is much more advanced than a mere verbal agreement. 

Today’s daf brings a story to demonstrate the second case: 

Buyers gave Rabbi Hiyya bar Yosef money for salt. Later on, the price of salt increased, and Rabbi Hiyya bar Yosef sought to renege on the deal. He came before Rabbi Yohanan. Rabbi Yohanan said to him: Go and give them the salt, and if not, accept upon yourself: He Who exacted payment. 

Despite being a learned sage, Rabbi Hiyya is sorely tempted to back out of a deal for which there is not only a verbal agreement but also exchange of money. He received payment for a bulk order of salt and before he could deliver the goods the price spiked, which meant he could get a better deal if he backed out of the original one and sold at the new price. Since money is not considered to enact the sale, at least according to rabbinic law, he is legally permitted to do this. But he obviously knows it’s not so kosher and consults Rabbi Yohanan (the very same rabbi who said that money enacts a sale on the biblical level). Rabbi Yohanan reminds his colleague that by backing out of the sale for which he has already accepted money, Rabbi Hiyya invites the curse of “He Who exacted payment” on himself.

The Gemara debates whether the rabbinic court informs a person that they will receive such a curse or actually does the cursing themselves. Just as this action is in the gray area, so too the social and religious means of enforcing are unclear.

Read all of Bava Metzia 48 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 16th, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

Discover More