Talmud pages

Bava Metzia 79

Loading up the donkey.

Today’s daf continues the discussion of what conditions renters and owners can stipulate with one another, and the extent of their liability. It contains a series of cases about the terms of renting a donkey (or sometimes a boat) for travel, including this one:

The sages taught: With regard to one who rents a donkey to ride on it, the renter may place his garment, his water jug and food for the journey on its back. The donkey driver may prevent him from placing anything more. The donkey driver may place barley and hay (for the donkey) and his own food for that first day alone. The renter may prevent him from placing anything more.

Since each party has a stake in the donkey’s health and travel speed, they each have some power to limit the other’s burdens so the donkey isn’t overladen. The driver is limited to sustenance for the donkey and a day’s worth of food for himself, while the renter is allowed some basic luggage plus food for the entire journey. The Gemara immediately puzzles over the discrepancy in food allotments: 

What are the circumstances? If this is referring to a situation where food is available for purchase, the donkey driver should also be able to prevent the renter from bringing food for the entire journey. And if it is a case where food is not available for purchase, the renter should not be able to prevent the donkey driver from loading his own food for the entire journey.

Why should one party be allowed food for only a day while the other is allowed food for an entire journey? Neither party can force the other to starve, but if supplies are readily available along the way, the donkey driver should be able to insist on further minimizing his animal’s burden. And if supplies are not readily available, the driver should be allowed to bring more.

Rav Pappa explains that we’re dealing with something of an intermediate situation:

No, the ruling of the beraita is necessary in a situation where food is available for one who goes to the trouble to purchase it from one station to the next station. Since it is the manner of a donkey driver to go to the trouble to purchase food, he may load the animal only with food for that day, whereas it is not the manner of the renter to go to the trouble to purchase food, and therefore he may take food with him for the entire journey.

The Gemara frequently takes into account what circumstances a person is accustomed to when determining rules and requirements, while still articulating more universally applicable limits. Rava Pappa suggests that in a case where food can be found, albeit with effort and inconvenience, the Gemara’s standards are determined by a person’s typical behavior. Since the donkey driver is likely accustomed to eating in the ancient equivalent of a truck stop, finding waystations where they can scrounge up food is their normal way of life. The renter could plausibly tell them: I’m not forcing you to behave differently than you frequently would of your own accord. Whereas the renter, someone who doesn’t travel for a living and presumably is of higher socioeconomic status, is not someone used to effortfully procuring meals day by day. Thus, provided the donkey is capable of bearing the renter’s supplies, the driver must allow them to bring sustenance for an entire journey.

Read all of Bava Metzia 79 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 17th, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

Discover More

Kiddushin 28

It's not about the money.

Kiddushin 67

Inherited features.

Gittin 79

Which kingdom is more legitimate?