Bava Metzia 51

Anonymous agenda.

As we know, the Talmud developed over hundreds of years and the editorial efforts of the three major eras of rabbis each shaped the text in their own unique ways. The earliest generations of rabbis, called the Tannaim, composed in Hebrew and gave us the Mishnah as well as all the independent traditions called beraitas that the Gemara frequently quotes. The next generations, called the Amoraim, composed in both Hebrew and Aramaic and their statements comprise the named sources in the Gemara. The latest rabbis are not named. They are the Gemara’s anonymous voice, representing the latest generations of talmudic editors, and they are the ones who gave final shaping to the conversations and ultimately determined what they would be about. They are often referred to as the stama d’gemara, the anonymous voice in the text.

Today, we’re going to focus on the stama d’gemara and see how this generation of rabbis sometimes imposes a completely different agenda on the sources that come before it. We begin with a mishnah that teaches both buyer and seller are subject to the laws of exploitation. This means that just as we protect a buyer from being grossly overcharged, we protect a seller from being massively underpaid. But what if one of the parties agrees to waive the fair-price protection? There’s a dispute between two Amoraim:

With regard to one who says to another, “I will be party to this sale on the condition that you have no claim of exploitation against me, even if you are exploited,” — Rav says the exploited party has a claim of exploitation against him, and Shmuel says he does not have a claim of exploitation against him. 

The issue here, suggests the stama d’gemara, is not really the question of whether or not a person is entitled to forgo their protection from exploitation, but whether a person can agree to something that goes against what is proscribed by the Torah, since the law against exploitation is found in Leviticus 25:14: “When you sell property to your neighbor, or buy from your neighbor, you shall not exploit one another.” Even though the details (e.g. how much overcharge counts as exploitation) are worked out by the rabbis, the laws of exploitation carry biblical authority. Shmuel allows a person to voluntarily forgo this (and presumably other) biblically-mandated protections, Rav does not.

The stama d’gemara goes on to suggest that this debate actually is tannaitic and predates Rav and Shmuel:

Let us say that Rav stated his opinion in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Meir, and Shmuel stated his opinion in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Yehuda, as it is taught in a beraita: With regard to one who says to a woman, “You are hereby betrothed to me on the condition that you do not have a claim against me for food, clothing, and conjugal rights,” she is betrothed to him and his condition is void — this is the statement of Rabbi Meir. And Rabbi Yehuda says: In monetary matters, one’s condition is in effect.

The beraita is talking about marital responsibilities. A man proposes to a woman on the condition that she forgoes marital benefits. Rabbi Meir says that this proposal is a valid one — meaning they are betrothed — but, should they marry, the man must still provide the benefits, despite the fact that he stipulated otherwise. Rabbi Yehuda, however, allows for the man’s stipulations about food and clothing to hold, as these are financial benefits, and he holds that one is allowed to make stipulations about financial matters. But the future husband cannot absolve himself of the responsibility for conjugal rights, as these are not a financial matter.

If, as the stama d’gemara suggests, the dispute between Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehuda is the same disagreement as the one between Rav and Shmuel, then we can align the positions of Rabbi Meir and Rav, who both hold that one cannot make stipulations on biblical law, and the positions of Rav and Shmuel who hold that one can do so, but only for financial matters.

In truth, however, the more general question about whether one can make stipulations about what is written in the Torah is a topic of interest primarily to the stama d’gemara in the Talmud. It is not the primary focus of any of the four rabbis whose opinions we are exploring. Take a close look again at the beraita, or the brief statements of Rav and Shmuel — you’ll be hard pressed to find a hint that making stipulations on what is written in the Torah is truly at the heart of either debate. Rather, it’s the anonymous voice of the Gemara that suggests that the baraita about proposals is connected to the dispute about financial overreach. In doing so, it shifts the conversation to an entirely new subject.

Read all of Bava Metzia 51 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 19th, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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