Bava Metzia 77

Teaching sharpens the mind.

You’ve hired some laborers for a day to do some work on your property and agreed on a rate. At lunchtime, they come and tell you that the work is complete. What now? Are you obligated to pay them for the full day even though the task did not take that long or can you pay them only for the hours that they worked? 

Rava suggests a solution:

If you have another task that is easier than the first one, you may give it to them. Or, if you have other work that is similar to the original task in difficulty, you may assign it to them. But if you have other work that is more difficult than the original task, you may not assign it to them, and you must give them their full wages.

Rava says you are obligated to pay for the full day. However, you may assign them additional tasks, so long as these tasks are no more taxing than the one they agreed to. The Gemara challenges the last past of Rava’s position:

Why must you pay them their full wages? You should pay them for the additional time at most as an idle laborer. 

The Gemara agrees that if you don’t have additional work of equal or lesser difficulty, you must compensate the laborers for their time — but not at their full rate. Rather, you should compensate them at the rate that one pays idle laborers, which is less than their active rate. 

The Gemara’s position is in line with previous discussions we’ve seen. Laborers are paid less if they are waiting around unable to work than they are when they are actually working. So now the question is: How can Rava suggest otherwise? The Gemara explains:

When Rava made his ruling, he was referring to workers in Mehoza, who become weak if they do not work.

Rava’s position is specific to the city of Mehoza. There, explains the Gemara, being idle is detrimental to the workers. Therefore, if they complete their task early, and one has no similar (or easier) tasks to give them, one has to pay them as if they worked the entire day.

This is confusing. Why would workers in Mehoza find an afternoon off detrimental while workers in, say, Nehardea would not? People are people, after all. And why, then, would the reparation be to pay them their full wage? Will more money make them stronger? 

It appears that the legal commentators, those who took the complex discussions of the Talmud and condensed them into significantly simplified law codes, had some of the same questions. They apply Rava’s opinion not just to Mehoza, but to any heavy laborers whose taxing work physically strengthens them and time off diminishes their strength regardless of location.

It’s interesting to note that the legal codes apply this exception to teachers of Torah as well, which is certainly not physically the same as, say, heavy construction work. Nonetheless, they hold that if a student becomes ill and has to stop learning in the middle of the day, their teacher is paid their full wages. Why? Just as time spent idling rather than lifting heavy beams weakens the muscles, time away from teaching Torah dulls the mind. We might read this as a self-interested ruling on the part of the rabbis; using their power to protect their own livelihood. Then again, perhaps from their perspective, there is no heavier lift than passing Torah on to the next generation and those on whom this responsibility rests must do whatever they can to fortify their skills. The ruling also implies that Torah teachers cannot maintain their intellectual resources all on their own; they need students to sharpen their minds.

Read all of Bava Metzia 77 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 15th, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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