Bava Metzia 6

Renting to a robber.

Since the beginning of this tractate, we’ve been dealing with many variations on the case of two people arriving in court both claiming the same garment. As the mishnah that opened this tractate explained, in a straightforward case, both take an oath and then divide the garment. (This means they sell the garment and divide the money it brings in.) On today’s daf, the rabbis surface a beraita that says virtually the same thing as the mishnah:

In what case is this statement said (that both of them take an oath and each receives half of the garment)? Where both of them are still holding the garment. But if the garment was in the possession of only one of them, the burden of proof rests upon the claimant.

The beraita adds a little information to what we learned in the mishnah, stating that the parties take an oath only if they are both physically grasping the garment. However, if just one party has possession of the garment, he is assumed to be the owner and it is the other who must prove ownership. This makes sense. After all, if we can’t assume people actually own the items in their possession, then the court system will be constantly trying to figure out what belongs to whom and no one’s possessions will be remotely secure.

The Gemara doesn’t object to this beraita. But it also doesn’t need it, because it doesn’t appear to be teaching anything new. The problem is not that it’s wrong, but that it’s obvious. So the rabbis ask: What new principle could this beraita be teaching us?

To unearth a new teaching, the rabbis begin to envision more complex scenarios underlying the beraita. Today, we’ll look at one:

It is possible that here we are dealing with a case where they came before us (the court) while both were holding the garment, and we said to them: “Go divide the garment,” and they left the court and afterward came back while one of them was holding it.

This one, who was holding the garment, said: “The other one admitted to me that I was justified in my claim.”

And that one, who was not holding the garment, said: “I rented half of the garment to him for money and did not relinquish my right to it.”

Perhaps, says the Gemara, this beraita is discussing a case in which the two parties arrived in court clutching the same garment and took their oaths, then were ordered to divide the garment. This should have solved the situation, but after they left to sell it, they returned to court and this time only one was holding the garment. The one in possession claimed that the other party admitted to his original claim and gave it to him. The one not in possession claimed that instead of selling the garment the two had reached an agreement in which he rented his half of the garment to the other. Now what do we do?

Neither party seems particularly trustworthy. The first is now clutching the garment and claiming that the other party conceded that it did not belong to him, only to then drag him to court over it again. This requires us to believe that one party kept changing his mind about whether he owned the garment — which just does not seem likely. On the other hand, why would someone choose to rent half of the garment when he had the option to do what the court ordered and sell the garment and secure its worth? Which party would you believe?

The Gemara tenders a judgment:

We say to him (the second party): Until now you suspected him of being a robber, and now you rented it to him without witnesses? 

Looking at the man who claims he rented his half of the garment to the other, the rabbis say: Why would you rent your half, without witnesses, to a person you previously claimed in court was a robber? Because that behavior does not make sense (and perhaps, because the other is now in possession of the item) you are the one who must prove your ownership.

In my mind, this was a tough call. Both claims seem highly suspect to me. But there isn’t always a perfect answer. Sometimes, the court has to make a decision based on what they think is most likely, knowing it might well be wrong.

Read all of Bava Metzia 6 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 5th, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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