Bava Metzia 64

Ethics and humility.

The mishnah on today’s daf continues to lay out the laws of interest. 

One who lends to another may not reside in his courtyard free, nor may he rent from him at less (than the going rate), because this is interest. 

This mishnah describes some of the more subtle and even invisible ways that a lender might charge a borrower interest — by living in the borrower’s courtyard, or renting an apartment from them at a discount. Both of these are ways of getting back more than you originally lent out and are prohibited through the laws of interest. 

The Gemara emphasizes just how remarkable these rules are: 

Rav Yosef bar Minyumi says that Rav Nahman says: Even though the sages said that one who resides in another’s courtyard without his knowledge does not have to pay him rent, if he lent and then resides in his courtyard, he must pay him rent.

As we saw back on Baba Kamma 20b, if you live in someone’s courtyard without their knowledge and don’t harm their property, you don’t actually have to pay them rent. But Rav Nahman insists that there is an exception to that rule — it doesn’t apply to anyone who has lent the owner money, lest it appear to be interest. Even though this kind of behavior is usually permitted, the Talmud here insists that lenders hold themselves to an incredibly high ethical standard, one enforced by rabbinic law.  

And yet the next part of the daf challenges that idea, at least for modern readers:

Rav Yosef bar Hama would seize the slaves of people who owed him money, and he would work them. His son Rava said to him: “What is the reason that the Master does this?” He said to him: “I maintain in accordance with Rav Nahman, as Rav Nahman said: ‘A slave is not worth even the bread in his stomach.'”

Apparently, Rava’s father would take possession of his debtors’ enslaved people and make them work for him for free. Rava’s father argued that this causes no actual financial loss to the borrower and so is not considered illegal interest. On tomorrow’s daf, we’ll see that Rava changes his father’s mind, convincing Rav Yosef bar Hama that while it is permitted to seize some enslaved people generally, it is not permitted to seize the enslaved people of a debtor because this appears too much like charging interest.

As a modern reader, I find myself both uncomfortable and frustrated with Rav Yosef bar Hama’s original practice — and honestly, even with Rava’s eventual solution, which solves the problem of the ethics of interest without engaging with the broader extractive economy it exists in. But today’s daf is a powerful reminder that even something as ostensibly objective as ethics is shaped by cultures that take specific forms in different times and places. We can learn from and aspire to many of those ethical principles while keeping in mind the fact that the rabbis were real people rooted in real economic and political systems. And rather than see this approach as hubris, it reminds us to be humble, because who knows which of our current practices our descendants will struggle with centuries from now?

Read all of Bava Metzia 64 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 2nd, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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