Talmudic pages

Bava Metzia 80

Rented beast of burden.

Harvest season is over and your focus has shifted from bringing in the crops to sending them out. You’ve had a banner year and your current herd of donkeys is insufficient to carry the load, so you’ve rented a donkey to deliver a shipment of wheat to a customer down the road. But in the hustle and bustle in the warehouse, all of your wheat was accidentally sent out with your own donkeys and the rented one was tasked to deliver barley instead. While on route, the rental donkey is injured.

Ordinarily, when a rented beast of burden is hurt as it goes about fulfilling its obligation, the renter is not liable for the damage. But you’ve deviated from the agreement, loading up the donkey with barley instead of wheat. Does that make a difference? According to a mishnah on today’s daf, it does:

When one rents a donkey in order to transport wheat on it and they transport an identical weight of barley instead, they are liable…because the extra volume is as difficult for the animal as the load itself.

Barley is lighter than wheat so a load of the same weight has more volume. Because the extra bulk adds to the donkey’s burden, you are responsible when the donkey suffers an injury on route. 

How would this work if your rental agreement stipulated volume instead of weight?

If one rented a donkey in order to bring on it a letekh (a measurement of volume) of wheat, but one transported a letekh of barley, one is exempt, as one brought the same volume of a lighter substance. And one who adds to a load a greater volume than he stipulated is liable. 

In other words, a substitution of a volume of barley for an equal amount of wheat would not obligate you to pay for the donkey’s injury, because your actions lightened its load. It goes without saying that you’d be on the hook if a similar change resulted in an increase in the weight of the shipment. 

As we have seen, the rabbis are particular about measurement. So exactly how much of an increase in volume makes the renter liable? Sumakhos says in the name of Rabbi Meir that the answer varies with the size of the animal. The renter becomes liable for a deviation of a kav (the volume of 24 eggs, or about six cups) or greater placed on a donkey and a se’a (the volume of 144 eggs — a little more than two gallons) or greater on a camel.

The bottom line is this: If you rent an animal to transport your crops, you have some leeway to deviate from the terms of the agreement as long as you do not increase the workload of the animal. And, as you take stock of the load, ensuring that you are within bounds for both weight and volume will protect you from liability for injury.

Read all of Bava Metzia 80 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 18th, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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