Bava Metzia 56

Infinite value.

As we’ve seen in recent pages, the Torah demands that people act ethically when buying and selling in the marketplace. Specifically, the rabbis define an ethical transaction as one in which the agreed-upon price is no more or less than one-sixth the value of the item. Today, we learn about some exceptions to this rule. Here’s the mishnah:

These are matters that are not subject to (the halakhot of) exploitation. Slaves, and documents, and land and consecrated property.

Why these four categories? The Gemara, drawing from a beraita, explains:

It is written: “And if you sell to your colleague an item that is sold, or acquire from your colleague’s hand, one shall not exploit their kin.” (Leviticus 25:14) This is referring to an item acquired from hand to hand. Land is excluded, as it is not movable. Slaves are excluded, as they are juxtaposed to land. 

Because the verse from which the rules of exploitation are derived refers specifically to items that are acquired by hand, the rabbis infer that the item being sold must be able to literally be passed from hand to hand, which excludes parcels of land. And since laws concerning slaves are often juxtaposed to laws about land, the buying and selling of slaves is also exempt from the rules prohibiting exploitation.

The exception for documents is derived from a different part of the same verse: 

It is written: “And if you sell to your colleague an item that is sold,” indicating an item itself sold and itself acquired. Documents are excluded, as they are not sold themselves and they are not acquired themselves, and they exist only for the proof therein.

Rashi explains that we’re talking here about promissory notes, which can themselves be objects of trade. If I purchase such a note, what I’m really buying is the funds that the note’s signatory promises to pay. The note itself has no intrinsic value and isn’t ultimately what is being sold. Since the verse stipulates that there be an actual item as part of the transaction, the rabbis understand that promissory notes are excluded. 

Finally, we come to consecrated property:

The verse states: “One shall not exploit their kin” (Leviticus 25:14) — their kin, but not consecrated property.

Transactions involving consecrated property are made on behalf of the Temple treasury, not between two people. So the buying and selling of consecrated property is out as well.

Back in the mishnah, Rabbi Yehuda suggests a few more things that might be added to the list:

Torah scroll, an animal and a pearl are not (subject to the laws of) exploitation.

Unlike the previously mentioned items, we don’t find justification for Rabbi Yehuda’s reasoning on today’s daf, but it can be found in the Tosefta (3:24) and a parallel beraita that we’ll encounter in a few days. A Torah scroll is excluded because its value is infinite, so by definition nobody could ever pay too much for one. Animals and pearls have limited value, but not always according to Rabbi Yehuda. If you are trying to create a matching earring for one you already own, that second jewel will be priceless to you. And what about animals? Maybe you’ve found an animal of equivalent size to one you already own and the two will fit together perfectly under one yoke. Or perhaps you are a breeder and are seeking an animal with highly specific traits. In these sorts of cases, you’d pay anything to get the item. 

But the other rabbis will have none of this, as the mishnah makes clear:

The rabbis said: The sages stated only these items.

Rabbi Yehuda is making a good argument. There are times when a person wants something for a particular reason that makes an item infinitely valuable to them, so much so that they would willingly pay a price that would otherwise seem exploitative. Shouldn’t we allow them to do so? But the rabbis seem to be saying just the opposite. It is precisely at those times that people most need protection from exploitation.

Read all of Bava Metzia 56 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 24th, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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