Bava Metzia 78

Renters and robbers.

The mishnah on today’s daf describes a series of scenarios in which someone rents an animal, perhaps to carry their goods to market. For example:

One who rents a donkey to lead it on a mountain but he led it in a valley, or in a valley but he led it on a mountain —even if this (path) is ten mil and that one is ten mil — and it dies: He is liable.

You might think that since both paths are the same distance, it would be fine for a renter to use a different path from the one they originally told the donkey’s owner they would use. And yet, the mishnah concludes that the renter still needs to pay the donkey’s owner for the loss of the donkey. 

The Gemara then tries to identify the early rabbi whose position this is. Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba, in the name of Rabbi Yohanan, states: 

It is in accordance with Rabbi Meir, who says: Anyone who diverges from the intention of the householder is called a robber.

A robber! To be clear, this isn’t just a statement of moral equivalence. As Rashi reminds us, one who is classed as a robber is legally liable for any damage that occurs to the “stolen” property, whether or not the specific damage itself was his fault. But why does Rabbi Meir make such a general statement? The Gemara raises several possibilities. Let’s look at the last one. 

Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar says in the name of Rabbi Meir: One who gives a dinar to a poor person to purchase a robe for himself, he may not purchase a cloak with it; a cloak, he may not purchase a robe with it — because he diverges from the intent of the homeowner.

Curiously, this example is not about a renter at all, but about the recipient of charity — a very different kind of financial transaction. According to Rabbi Meir, one who is given charity for a specific purpose cannot use it for a different purpose. Can we learn a general principle from that? 

Perhaps it is different there, as they will come to suspect (the giver), for people say so-and-so said: “I am purchasing clothing for such and such a poor person,” but he did not actually purchase it. Alternatively, “I am purchasing him a cloak,” but he did not purchase it for him.

Perhaps in this specific case, the recipient of charity is required to use the money as directed because if anyone hears the donor say that they will give the poor person money for a coat, and then sees the poor person not wearing a new coat, they will think that the donor is all talk and never followed up on their pledge. And if so, can we really learn something about people who rent donkeys from this scenario? According to the Gemara, the answer is yes.

If so let it teach: Because of suspicion. Then why? Because he diverges from the intent of the homeowner? Conclude from it that because he changed, and anyone who diverges from the intention of the employer is called a robber.

The Talmud insists that if the concern was public doubt over whether the pledge was fufilled, the mishnah would have said so. And since the mishnah didn’t say that the issue was suspicion, but instead diverging from the intent of the householder, the Talmud feels comfortable extrapolating Rabbi Meir’s broader principle from this case. 

But before we get too invested in making sure that our renters and charity recipients follow our instructions to the letter, it’s worth noting that the Gemara ultimately concludes that we don’t follow Rabbi Meir’s position at all. Even though it means that renting and giving ultimately involve some risk of misuse, those who rent and those who receive charity are the actual authorities in terms of what they need. Based on their intimate knowledge of their own situation, they might actually need to take a detour with a donkey on a mountain or buy a new cloak instead of a new robe. Not robbers at all, but subject-area experts.

Read all of Bava Metzia 78 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 16th, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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