Talmudic pages

Bava Metzia 70

Erroneous assumptions.

On today’s daf, we learn of a potential exception to the Talmud’s prohibition against charging interest:

Rav Anan says that Shmuel says: It is permitted to lend with interest money belonging to orphans. 

The logic here seems to be that since orphans are minors and not yet subject to the rules Jewish law, those entrusted to protect the value of their wealth may issue interest bearing loans on their behalf. But Rav Nahman is not so sure:

Rav Nahman said to Rav Anan: Because they are orphans we may feed them prohibited items? Orphans that consume that which is not theirs will follow their deceased parent to the grave!

Rav Nahman raises the obvious objection that we don’t feed unkosher food to orphans just because they’re minors, so how could we allow them to profit financially in ways that are prohibited to adults? Allowing them to do so, says Rav Nahman, will not end well.

It’s not only that Rav Nahman objects to what Rav Anan reported, he is also pretty sure that Shmuel would not have as well. So he asks Rav Anan to provide some additional context:

Rav Anan said to him: A certain kettle of the children of Mar Ukva (who were minor orphans) was in the house of Mar Shmuel (who would rent it out on behalf of the orphans). He would weigh it and then give it out, weigh it and take it back, and take a rental fee for depreciation. 

Rav Anan relates a situation in which Shmuel lends out a copper kettle, owned by orphans, and accepts both a rental fee and a payment for depreciation. Normally, if one takes payment for depreciation, the transaction is categorized as a loan and so one cannot also take a rental fee, since doing so would be considered to be charging interest. This leads Rav Anan to conclude that Shmuel holds that orphans, or their financial caretakers, are allowed to issue loans with interest. But Rav Nahman isn’t buying it: 

Like this, as even bearded ones (i.e., adults) are permitted to act in this manner.

As it turns out, while charging for the depreciation is not usually permitted as part of a rental agreement, there’s an exception for copper kettles, which become less valuable the more they are used. So Rav Anan has made an erroneous assumption about Shmuel’s position regarding orphans and their ability to charge interest. Good thing Rav Nahman was around to point this out.

We regularly encounter talmudic sages quoting Shmuel and his contemporaries. Just like Rav Anan, they typically present a brief teaching about a particular matter of law, without context or explanation. A significant majority of the time, these statements are accepted at face value. But if Rav Anan’s misunderstanding leads him to misrepresent Shmuel’s position, how can we know that others did not do the same?

The truth is we cannot know for sure. While the narrative voice of the Talmud can give us the impression that we are reading transcripts of conversations that transmit the statements of the rabbis accurately, we know this is not actually the case. We do not have access to what Shmuel actually said, only to how what he said was remembered and understood over time. 

And while the conversation between Rav Anan and Rav Nahman is presented to us ostensibly in order to help us understand Shmuel’s position about minors and the charging of interest, it also teaches about how to view the talmudic discourse as a whole.

Read all of Bava Metzia 70 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 8th, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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