Bava Metzia 74

Seeds of sharecroppers.

Sharecropping is an ancient economic system in which someone who owns land allows someone else to live on it and farm it in exchange for a share of the crops (hence the name). Though in many instances, sharecropping has been hugely exploitative, there has been significant variation in what this kind of economic system looks like in practice.

For the rabbis of the Mishnah and the Talmud, sharecropping was a form of renting, which means that all the rabbinic prohibitions against charging interest and the exploitation of renters applied to the owner-sharecropper relationship. But what does that mean in practice? The mishnah on today’s daf explains:

A person may lend wheat to his sharecroppers for wheat of seeding

According to the mishnah, a landowner can lend their sharecropper the kernels of wheat required to plant a new wheat field, with the expectation that they be paid back at the end of the growing season kernel for kernel. The Talmud then cites a beraita that offers a slightly different version of this ruling:

The sages taught: A person may lend wheat to his sharecroppers for wheat of seeding. When is this statement said? When (the sharecropper) has not gone down, but if he has gone down, it is prohibited. 

The sages here also permit a landowner to lend wheat kernels for planting to his sharecropper, but with an additional nuance: It is only permitted if the sharecropper has not already gone to the field to begin the planting process. If the sharecropper has started the planting process (which involves preparing the ground even before planting wheat kernels), then the landowner is not allowed to lend him wheat for planting. 

The Talmud next interrogates why the mishnah and the beraita have different takes on the issue. Why does the mishnah permit lending wheat for planting regardless of where the sharecropper is in the planting process, while the beraita only allows it if the sharecropper has not yet gone to the field to begin the planting process? 

To answer this question, Rava points to the different sharecropping norms: 

Rava said: Rabbi Idi explained to me: In the locale of the tanna of our mishnah, the sharecropper would provide the seeds, and whether he went down or did not go down, as long as he has not put the seeds (into the field, the landowner) can remove him. 

According to Rabbi Idi, the mishnah was written in a place with specific customs around sharecropping: The sharecropper was expected to provide the kernels, and the annual lease was formally renewed at the moment he began to plant them. In a region where that’s the custom, it’s obvious that if the landowner is giving kernels of wheat as seed, it’s a loan — regardless of the stage of planting. And loans have to be paid back. However, apparently these customs were regionally specific:

In the locale of the tanna of the beraita, the landowner provides the seeds, and if he has not yet gone down he can remove him, and when he goes down (into the field), he goes down for less than this. But if he went down, he can no longer remove him, and it is prohibited. 

The anonymous sages of the beraita apparently lived in a place where the landowners were responsible for providing the wheat kernels as seeds, not the sharecroppers — and those kernels are factored into the original lease agreement, and so they aren’t a loan at all. And not only that, but the lease was considered formally renewed at the moment the sharecropper began to prepare the ground for planting. 

In such a place, if the sharecropper renews the lease before receiving the kernels from the landowner, the rabbis assume he is waiving his right to the kernels. And if the sharecropper waived their right to the kernels and then borrowed them, they’re essentially paying the cost of the kernels twice — once in the lease agreement, and again when the borrowed kernels are paid back. And the sages are concerned that that might look too much like the landowner is charging forbidden interest. 

Note that both the mishnah and the beraita appear to have been written in Israel, and both in the region of the Galilee. Today’s daf reminds us that economic variation does not just happen across the borders of different empires, but from town to town. But while sharecropping agreements might be different regionally, the rabbinic commitment to ethical lease agreements remains consistent.

Read all of Bava Metzia 74 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 12th, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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