Bava Metzia 55

Small claims court.

When someone has done you wrong, it’s reasonable to compel them in court to pay you back for the harm they caused. But what if the amount of the damage is infinitesimal? Is there an amount so small that courts should refuse to hear the claim out of hand? Yes, says the mishnah on today’s daf: if you’re suing for less than two silver ma’a or if the defendant admits to owing less than one peruta. In those cases, the court won’t hear the claim, and the plaintiff is out of luck.

But let’s look a little closer. Is there really a one-peruta cutoff in civil suits?

Rav Ketina says: The court attends to (monetary claims of) even less than the value of one peruta. 

Rava raises an objection. It is written: “And he shall make restitution for that which he has done amiss in the sacred matter.” (Leviticus 5:16)

So perhaps it’s not as clear as the mishnah states. Rav Ketina rejects the one peruta threshold outright, and Rava cites a verse from Leviticus that imposes a blanket requirement of restitution with no mention of a monetary floor. But the Gemara draws a distinction:

To include (misuse of consecrated property) less than the value of one peruta of restitution (to the Temple treasury). To the Temple, yes. But to an ordinary person, no.

So there are two types of theft: one from the Temple, which requires restitution regardless of the value, and one from an ordinary person, for which there is a floor of one peruta. The Gemara then clarifies further and rephrases on Rav Ketina’s behalf, laying out a standard for civil claims:

Rather, if (Rav Ketina’s ruling) was stated, this is how it was stated: Rav Ketina says: If the court attends to the value of one peruta, conclude even less than one peruta. For the beginning of legal proceedings, we require one peruta. For the verdict, we do not require one peruta.

Even if the value of the claim turns out to be less than one peruta, perhaps due to depreciation or a counterclaim that reduces the recoverable amount, the court will enforce the ruling so long as the original claim was more than one peruta. Once the court has convened, it sees the case through to its conclusion regardless, a halakhic decision that both the Mishneh Torah and the Shulchan Aruch adopt.

And there we have it: While the mishnah paints with a broad brush to shut the door on tiny claims, the Gemara opens that door a crack to let certain claimants who might recover less than a peruta back into the courthouse.

Read all of Bava Metzia 55 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 23rd, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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