Bava Metzia 57

The Temple's interest.

Today, the Gemara quotes a beraita that teaches us that transactions involving consecrated property are not subject to the prohibitions against exploitation and charging interest. In response, the Gemara seeks to understand exactly when one can charge interest for consecrated property. 

What are the circumstances of interest in cases of consecrated property? If we say that (the Temple) treasurer lent 100 in exchange for 120, didn’t the treasurer thereby misuse consecrated property? And once the treasurer misused, his money immediately leaves its consecrated state and becomes non-sacred. And it is then money of a layman.

The Gemara starts with the most straightforward of cases: The Temple treasurer lends out money and charges interest. But in loaning the money, the treasurer is misusing consecrated funds, as loans are not one of the sacred duties of the Temple. When the consecrated funds are misused, they lose their consecrated status and the treasurer is on the hook to reimburse the treasury plus a one-fifth penalty. And here’s the kicker, since the money used to fund the loan is now unconsecrated, the prohibition against charging interest applies and the borrower is only required to pay back the principal.

So the Temple treasury can’t make simple loans. How else might it charge interest? 

Rav Hoshaya said: With what are we dealing here? Where one accepts upon himself to supply fine flour at four, and (the market price rose and) stood at three. As it is taught: One who accepts upon themself to supply fine flour at four, and (the market price rose and) stood at three, he is required to supply at four.

A person has agreed to sell fine flour to the Temple at a price of one sela for four se’a, but before the product is delivered, the market price rises such that now one sela only buys three se’a of flour. The law requires the merchant to sell the flour to the Temple at the original price.

In requiring the merchant to deliver four se’a of flour at the original price, the Temple is charging interest. How so? Rav Hosahaya suggests that in paying the merchant the original price of one sela for four se’a of flour, it is as if the merchant is being loaned one sela and receiving back the principal plus an additional one-third of interest in the form of additional flour. The implication is that this is only possible because the flour is being sold to the Temple. If the merchant were selling the flour to a regular buyer, they would be able to sell the flour at the higher price. 

This is, to say the least, a very peculiar way of understanding how loans work. And the Talmud commentators raise a wide range of questions about the case and spill a lot of ink trying to explain Rav Hoshaya’s opinion. The diversity of voices and the complexity of their arguments suggest that even if this is indeed an example of a case where the Temple is allowed to charge interest, it’s not a very good one. It’s a good thing then that Rav Pappa presents an example that is easier to follow:

Here we are dealing with building stones that are entrusted to the (Temple) treasurer, in accordance with Shmuel, who says: One builds with non-sacred (materials) and one consecrates them thereafter. 

In order to avoid potential misuse of consecrated property during construction projects at the Temple, contractors use non-consecrated materials. Only after the construction is complete are those materials consecrated for Temple use. As a result, during the construction itself, the Temple is in possession of non-consecrated items. Should the Temple treasurer decide to loan them out, they can charge the borrower interest without concern that they would be misusing consecrated items.

At the end of the day, we finish where we started. The beraita informed us that transactions involving consecrated property are not subject to the prohibitions against charging interest and the Gemara has provided two examples of how this might work. So what have we gained? 

From the Talmud’s perspective, we’ve justified the teaching of the beraita. If we could not come up with an example of how the Temple treasury could charge interest, then we might have to conclude that the beraita’s claim that consecrated property is not subject to the laws barring interest is in error, or it reflects a discarded tradition, or we’re misunderstanding it. But having shown at least two ways it’s possible, the Talmud has demonstrated that if the beraita teaches that the Temple is permitted to charge interest, there must be a case where it’s possible.

Read all of Bava Metzia 57 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 25th, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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