Bava Metzia 54

Thing vs. person.

On today’s daf, the Gemara continues its examination of the laws of second tithe, the sacred portion of one’s produce that had to be brought to Jerusalem and consumed there. While one method is to bring the produce itself, depending on how close one lived to Jerusalem, it might not be feasible to get the produce to the city before it rotted, or the burden might be unmanageable. So the Torah provides a solution: One can desacralize the produce, transferring its second-tithe status on to coins, which are then brought to Jerusalem where new produce is bought with this money and consumed. The normative requirement for these coins is that they be equivalent to the value of the produce plus a fifth. 

There are several areas of Jewish law in which a chomesh, an additional one-fifth payment, is added to the principal value of an object. Often it appears as a form of punishment or as part of a process of redemption. The latter category is where the second tithe falls.

In determining the precise nature of this one-fifth, today’s daf asks a question: Does failure to pay the additional one-fifth prevent consumption of the original produce outside of Jerusalem? The Gemara unpacks the question a bit for us:

Is four dinars redeemed with four dinars, and add one-fifth (an obligation incumbent upon) the owner himself? In that case, apparently one-fifth does not prevent consumption. Or perhaps four dinars is redeemed with five dinars, and (failure to pay the additional) one-fifth prevents consumption.

The distinction proposed in this question is what scholars of the Brisker method of Talmud interpretation would call a cheftza/gavra distinction. Cheftza means thing and gavra means person. Within this framework, the Gemara is asking: Is the one-fifth payment an obligation on the thing itself or on the individual? If it’s an obligation on the actual produce, that would mean that produce fundamentally can only ever be desacralized on to money worth its value plus one-fifth. But if it’s an obligation on the person, that means four dinars of produce only requires four dinars to be desacralized. The additional one-fifth payment is a personal obligation with no bearing on whether the produce has effectively been desacralized or not. 

While this distinction may seem fine-grained, it has implications for whether the produce can be eaten outside Jerusalem or not. On a basic level, did the desacralization work? If the additional one-fifth is a gavra obligation on a person, then it did. The produce only needed four dinars to be desacralized, and it got them. Though the person should still contribute the additional one-fifth, the produce itself has lost its second-tithe status and can therefore be consumed outside of Jerusalem. But if the additional one-fifth is a cheftza obligation, then the act of desacralization was invalid. The produce thus retains its second-tithe status and cannot be eaten outside of Jerusalem.

The practical implications of this kind of distinction matter, but so does the distinction itself, because it enables us to understand the essential nature of various ritual requirements. Is a particular action indispensable to the successful fulfillment of a specific religious obligation or not? Knowing these sorts of answers enables us to make legal rulings in various less-than-ideal situations, but it also fine-tunes our understanding of the obligation itself. What is part of its essential nature and what are important but not indispensable additions? If particular actions aren’t fundamental to the obligation itself, for what reason were they added? And what can they tell us about the goal and experience of fulfilling such an obligation?

Read all of Bava Metzia 54 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 22nd, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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