Bava Metzia 7

Out of whole cloth.

Back on Bava Metzia 2, we began this tractate with a discussion about what happens when two people lay claim to a garment. The mishnah presents two scenarios: one where two people each claim the entire garment and one where one person claims the whole garment while the second claims only half. According to the mishnah, the first pair splits the garment equally, while the second pair splits the disputed half so that the first person gets three-quarters of the garment while the second gets a quarter.

But what if the claim on the garment is physical rather than verbal?

Rav Tahalifa from the west (the land of Israel) taught this beraita before Rabbi Abbahu: If two people are grasping a garment, this one takes up to where his hand reaches, and that one takes up to where his hand reaches, and they divide the remainder, the part of the garment that is in the grasp of neither, equally.

This is more tug-of-war than shouting match. In this case, says the rabbi from the land of Israel, each person gets the portion of the garment they are physically grasping and they split the portion between their respective grasps. This allows for all manner of division, well beyond 50–50 or 25–75.

But how do we harmonize this scenario with the original mishnah, which also envisioned the parties as simultaneously grasping the garment?

Rav Pappa said: The mishnah is discussing a case where neither of them is grasping the garment itself, but rather they are holding onto the fringes of the garment.

Instead of grabbing large chunks of the garment, Rav Pappa suggests, the disputants in the mishnah are grabbing only fringes that dangle from the edge. The substance of the garment is in the hands of neither, so they divide it equally. 

Rav Mesharshiyya explains:

Learn from Rav Pappa’s statement: Once he has grasped three by three fingerbreadths of the cloth, we consider (such an action to be an acquisition, as it is stated): “Now this was the custom in former times in Israel … to confirm all things: A man drew off his shoe, and gave it to his neighbor; and this was the attestation in Israel.” (Ruth 4:7)

One of the halahkic ways to transfer ownership is for the purchaser to physically grab or pull on it. Rav Mesharshiyya holds that you don’t have to grab the whole cloth, as it were, but a minimal-size portion of it: nine square fingerbreadths, which is just enough for it to have utility. This, he explains, is a reflection of the biblical practice alluded to in Ruth, in which one person would hand an item (in that case, a shoe) to another to effect the legal acquisition.

The text explains this particular measurement:

This is because such an amount of the cloth is significant enough to be considered as though it were severed from the rest of the cloth, and therefore when the recipient grasps it, it effects the acquisition, even though the rest of the cloth is still in the hand of the other party.

Because three by three is the minimum size for the cloth to have utility, that is the minimum size for what he grasps to be considered a stand-alone cloth — even if the rest of the garment is in someone else’s grasp. As a result, holding what could be a cloth utensil in and of itself, even if it’s still attached to the rest of the article, is enough for a claim.

This discussion moves us pretty far past the mishnah that opened the tractate. It allows claims on any percentage of an item, and it allows claims that are non-verbal. We might hope that all disputes were conducted in a situation of respectful discussion, but some of them do come down to grabbing. And, it seems, in this case at least, possession really is nine-tenths of the law.

Read all of Bava Metzia 7 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 6th, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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