Talmud pages

Bava Metzia 52

Overpay for your back, purchase at cost for your stomach.

Ancient coins didn’t just hold symbolic value like today’s paper money — the metal in them had inherent value. This meant that as coins were circulated, they wore out and slowly dropped weight; thus, they could erode in value. Today’s daf deals with the question of when a coin becomes deficient enough to be considered fraudulent.

The mishnah presents us with three opinions: Rabbi Meir holds that a coin can lose up to 1/24th of its physical weight and still be considered to have its full value, while Rabbi Yehudah holds it can be damaged up to 1/12th and Rabbi Shimon holds even up to one-sixth. 

The Gemara then asks how this differs from what we learned in a previous mishnah on Bava Metzia 49b, that if any item is marked up more than one-sixth of its value, the sale is fraudulent:

What is the difference between a sela, over which they argue, and a garment, over which they do not? Rava said, “Who is the tanna who taught about the garment? Rabbi Shimon.” Abaye said, “A garment, a person will waive up to one-sixth (of the price), as people say, ‘Overpay for your back but purchase at cost for your stomach.’” With regard to a sela, since it is not accepted as legal tender, one will not waive the difference.

We learned earlier, in an anonymous mishnah, that a transaction is only considered fraudulent if one overpays by more than one-sixth of the price. For today’s mishnah, however, when the subject is not a garment but a coin, there is a dispute about how much variation in value we will accept: 1/24th, 1/12th, or one-sixth. The question for the Gemara is how to reconcile these two mishnahs. Rava argues that there is, in fact, no dispute between the two mishnahs: The anonymous mishnah, which we had assumed to give an undisputed opinion, is in fact the opinion of Rabbi Shimon, and others disagree. Abaye, on the other hand, posits that there is simply a different standard for coins and garments, for good reason: People are willing to overpay (to an extent) for a garment, but they will not tolerate doing so for coins (or food). 

The later talmudic commentators attempt to untangle this mess. The Rif, a ninth-century talmudic commentator and halakhist, explains that the halakhah follows Rava, who already ruled like the apparently anonymous mishnah in the case of a garment; therefore, we rule like Rabbi Shimon here, whose opinion — a coin can lose up to one-sixth of its weight and still be valid — is consistent with the earlier ruling. Nimukei Yosef, commenting on the Rif, notes that, even though the general rule is that we follow a mishnah with no named attribution (except when a tannaitic debate follows such a mishnah), in this case, the halakhah does not follow the anonymous mishnah. When an amora rules explicitly, he continues, this latter ruling overrides the general rule. Since Rava rules like the anonymous mishnah, we follow his ruling. On the other hand, the Rosh argues that there is a copyist’s mistake here, and Rava should actually be Rabbah, an earlier amora. He argues that Rava is never cited before Abaye — because Abaye was head of the academy before Rava, and he would speak first in the beit midrash (study house) — therefore, the version we have doesn’t make sense. In this case, the halakhah follows Abaye, as the general rule is that the halakhah follows the later amora. In fact, another rule states that in a debate between Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Shimon, the halakhah follows Rabbi Yehudah. The Rosh, then, rules like Rabbi Yehudah. This debate continues into later halakhah: The Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Yosef Caro’s code of Jewish law, rules like the Rif, allowing one to use a damaged coin until it has decreased one-sixth in value, while Rabbi Moses Isserles, in his gloss to the Shulchan Aruch, rules like the Rosh, allowing only 1/12th of a decrease in value. 

At its core, the centuries-long debate asks whether coins are qualitatively different from other kinds of purchased goods, like clothing. If they are, perhaps we do not tolerate as much overcharge for them. If one believes coins are different — perhaps because they are serviceable in a wider range of situations and are the basis for any trade within a society — one may lean towards a different rule, one that still gives weight to authority and tradition but is applied in a slightly different way.

Read all of Bava Metzia 52 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 20th, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

Discover More

Kiddushin 5

Can you skip betrothal and still get married?

Gittin 75

More clarity, please.