Bava Metzia 63

Unexpected gifts.

Today’s daf concludes with three statements in the name of Rav Nahman. The first teaching is about the prohibition against charging interest:

The principle with regard to the laws of interest is: Any payment for one’s waiting is forbidden. 

In other words, a borrower cannot compensate a lender for the time in which they held the other’s funds. Doing so constitutes charging interest, which is forbidden.

Rav Nahman’s second teaching addresses a situation that is a bit more complicated:

In the case of this one who gives money to a wax seller to purchase blocks of wax from him, and blocks of wax go at the current rate of one dinar for four blocks, and the seller said to him: “I will give you wax in the future at the rate of five blocks for each dinar if you pay me now” — if the seller has wax with him at the time of the transaction, it is permitted, but if the seller does not have wax with him, it is forbidden.

A merchant offers a buyer a deal: He is willing to sell his wax more cheaply if the buyer will accept delayed delivery. If, says Rav Nahman, the seller has the blocks in stock (ensuring he can make good on the promise) this is permitted. But if the seller does not, it is forbidden. That’s because this makes the transaction more like a loan than a sale. How so? The merchant is borrowing a dinar now and returning five wax blocks, four that represent the principal (as the price of four blocks is one dinar) and the fifth block, which is considered to be interest. 

Rav Nachman’s third teaching deals with a case in which one person borrows coins from another. Instead of addressing a situation where the borrower returns an additional sum to the lender, this case involves a situation where the borrower discovers that they received more coins than they had arranged to borrow. In this situation, Rav Nahman says:

If the addition was within the range that a person can make a mistake, the borrower is obligated to return the extra coins to him. But if not, it must only be that the lender has given him a gift.

Suppose I borrow $100 from you in quarters and discover that you’ve given me 11 ten-dollar rolls instead of ten (a standard roll of quarters is worth $10). I should assume that you counted wrong and return the extra roll. But if you give me twenty rolls, I can assume that the extra ten rolls are a gift. 

Rav Aha, son of Rava seems puzzled by this ruling and asks: What happens if the money lender is not known for their generosity? In such a case, shouldn’t we assume that the extra coins — even if there are many — are a mistake and must be returned? No, says Rav Ashi, in support of Rav Nahman:

Perhaps the lender once robbed the borrower, and now they included in the calculation the amount they stole, in order to return the stolen money without informing him of the theft. 

Rav Aha is still puzzled: But what if the lender is from elsewhere and the two parties could not have had any previous dealings with one another? Again, Rav Ashi responds:

Perhaps another person (a third party) who knows the lender was the one who robbed the borrower and said to the lender: When so-and-so borrows money from you, include it in the calculation. 

Rav Nahman’s notion that a small deviation is an error but a large one is a gift is puzzling. Sure, finding an extra ten rolls of quarters in the bag of coins that I lent out could be the borrower’s attempt to give me an otherwise unmarked gift — but is that likely? And it seems even less likely, at least in our cultural context, that the borrower would be wordlessly returning money they, or someone else, stole from me. I am left to wonder: Is Rav Ashi inventing an implausible (though not impossible) scenario in order to support Rav Nahman’s teaching? Or was this perhaps really a way in which people gave gifts in his day?

Read all of Bava Metzia 63 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 1st, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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