Bava Metzia 53

Within and without.

The Torah prescribes a complex system of tithing that was clarified by the rabbis. Maaser sheni, the second tithe, was taken from produce grown in the land of Israel during the first, second, fourth and fifth years of the seven-year agricultural cycle. When the tithe was operative, it was brought to Jerusalem and eaten there. If the distance from your home was too great to transport the tithe, you could sell the tithed produce for cash, bring the money to Jerusalem, purchase new food, and consume it there. Opting for this convenience obligated you to add a fifth to the value of your tithe. On today’s daf, the Gemara asks:

Is the payment of one-fifth calculated from within or is the payment of one-fifth calculated from without?

A payment of one-fifth from within means that you calculate the value of your tithe and add one-fifth to it. That is, if your tithe was worth $100, you were required to add another $20 and bring a total of $120 to Jerusalem. A payment of one-fifth from without means that the amount you add to your tithe is one-fifth of the total of what you ultimately will have to bring, or one-fourth of the value of your tithe. So if your tithe was worth $100, you would have to bring $125 to Jerusalem, since the $25 premium is one-fifth of the total.

For the individual, paying from within is clearly better since you save 5% of the original value of your tithe. One-fifth from without, however, brings more money into Jerusalem — one of the objectives of this tithe. So which do we follow?

To follow the Gemara’s answer, it helps to know about this mishnah found later in the Talmud on Arakhin 27a:

In the case of one who consecrates his ancestral field, when the treasurer announces the sale of the field, they say to the owner: “You open the bidding first.” This method is advantageous for the Temple treasury, as the owner gives an additional payment of one-fifth of the value of the field, and every other person does not give an additional one-fifth payment.

A landowner consecrates one of their fields. Since they obviously cannot physically bring the field to the Temple, it is sold at auction and the funds are donated to the Temple treasury. If the landowner buys their own land at auction, they add a fifth to the sale price, just like the farmer who redeems their tithe. Since it’s better for the Temple to get these additional funds, the owner is allowed to bid first.

Back on our daf, Ravina cites a beraita in response to our question about whether one-fifth of maaser sheni is calculated from the inside or the outside. The beraita echoes what we learned from the mishnah in Arakhin: If the owner will pay 20 dinars to redeem the land and so will another person, the owner takes precedence as this will generate 20 dinar plus one-fifth for the Temple. But what if the other buyer will pay more? The beraita continues:

If one who is not the owner said: It is incumbent upon me to desacralize it for 21 dinars, the owner gives a payment of 26 dinars. 

If another buyer outbids the owner, we require the owner to match that price. Why? Because doing so benefits the Temple which collects the premium that the owner pays but the other bidder does not. So if the other person offers 22 dinars, the owner pays 27. And so on and so on.

At what point does the price get so high that we sell the land to the bidder and let the owner off the hook? The beraita does not address this question. For the owner’s sake, I hope there is a limit — it does not seem fair that another party can inflate the price of his land without end.

You may have noticed that although the price of the property kept increasing in the beraita, the surcharge did not. Regardless of what the other person bid, the owner only had to add five dinars to it. The Gemara noticed this too and concludes:

Learn from this that one-fifth is calculated from without.  Learn from this that this is the law.

No matter the final selling price, we accept the owner’s valuation as the value of the property, even if they are forced to pay more in response to the other bidders. Since the owner set the value at 20 dinars, the surcharge is fixed at five. This calculation uses the one-fifth from without formula, providing us with the precedent that we need to answer our original question.

Read all of Bava Metzia 53 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 21st, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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