Bava Metzia 61

Bringing up the past.

The character Tahani from the television show The Good Place was famous for slipping stories of her dramatic encounters with celebrities into random conversation. Reminding people (in Tahani’s case, even in the afterlife!) of the rich and powerful life experiences you’ve had is hardly an uncommon impulse. And while it serves a social function, it can also seem random, and perhaps (or in Tahani’s case, certainly) annoying. 

On today’s daf, the rabbis express concern that God seems to do something similar, bringing up the “greatest hits” of past experience in random contexts. We’re currently in an extended conversation about the laws of interest, and as Leviticus 25:37-38 tells us: “Do not lend your money at advance interest, nor give your food at accrued interest. I am the Eternal your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be your God.” God similarly brings up the exodus in teaching Israel the laws of tzitzit (Numbers 15:39-41) and the laws of weights and measures (Leviticus 19:35-36). What do these very specific economic and ritual laws have to do with the exodus?

For solid theological reasons, the rabbis are not going to conclude that God is name-dropping or being arbitrary and annoying. Instead, they read these mentions of the exodus as offering important insight into the power of God and the consequences of disobeying God’s desired social order. 

The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: I am He Who distinguished in Egypt between the drop (of semen) that would become a firstborn and the drop of that was not firstborn. I am also He Who is destined to exact punishment from one who attributes his money to a gentile and lends it to a Jew with interest. And from one who buries his weights in salt. And from one who hangs indigo dye on his garment and says it is sky-blue dye.

All three of the sins mentioned can be gotten around in ways that are invisible to others. Legal fictions can be created to “get around” the ban on charging interest, while dehydrating one’s weights to charge more for less or swapping out the expensive techelet dye for a cheaper alternative won’t be immediately obvious to shoppers in the marketplace. But Rava reads the connection to the exodus as a reminder that even if you can fool others, you can’t fool God, who can distinguish between right and wrong, legal and illegal, and will respond accordingly. 

The Talmud then quotes Ravina, who mentions another biblical law that mentions the exodus: 

The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: I am He Who distinguished in Egypt between the drop (of semen) that would become a firstborn and the drop of that was not firstborn. I am also He Who is destined to exact punishment from one who intermingles the innards of non-kosher fish with the innards of kosher fish and sells them to a Jew.

Like the other examples cited above, this one also isn’t going to be easy to spot. If a fishmonger tries to mix cheaper non-kosher fish together with the more expensive kosher fish and pocket the difference, the buyer probably won’t know — but God will. 

What’s particularly striking about these mentions of the exodus is that they all specifically note God’s ability to determine whether a drop of semen in a uterus is going to turn into a firstborn son (who is thus vulnerable to being struck down by the tenth plague) or not. The example is profoundly physical. But for these two rabbis, this moment serves as a powerful demonstration of God’s ability to discern what is hidden and to distinguish between two categories even when the difference is not visible to the human eye. And as the plague of the firstborn reminds us, that ability was profoundly connected to God’s commitment to enact swift judgment.

Read all of Bava Metzia 61 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 29th, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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