Bava Metzia 81

Let miggo.

We’ve previously encountered the halakhic principle of miggo. The rabbis hold that a confession of wrongdoing enhances a witness’s credibility. The idea is that we expect people who lie to only say things that are to their own benefit. This means that if they admit to something against their own interests, they’re probably telling the truth about other things. For example, if you admit to stealing a loaf of bread, but deny stealing a getaway car, you’re likely to get the benefit of the doubt and escape a grand theft auto charge. 

Today, miggo arises in the context of entrustment of property, and the rabbis lay out some limitations. To begin with, we’re presented with (yet again) the scenario of a rented donkey:

A certain man rented a donkey to another. The owner said to the renter: “Look, do not go on the path of Nehar Pekod, where there is water and the donkey is likely to drown. Instead, go on the path of Neresh, where there is no water.” The renter went on the path of Nehar Pekod and the donkey died. When he came back, he said: “Yes, I went on the path of Nehar Pekod, but there was no water.”

If we were to invoke the principle of miggo here, we’d accept everything the renter said at face value: Yes, he deviated from the owner’s instructions, but he admitted it. This concession on the renter’s part would compel us to accept his claim that there was no water and therefore the donkey didn’t drown, as the owner had feared. In this case, he owes nothing to the owner.

The Gemara offers another way of looking at it:

Rava said: Why should he lie (in this way)? If this man wanted to lie, he could have told the donkey’s owner: “I went on the path of Neresh, as the owner instructed.” 

As Rava notes, the renter could simply have lied about the path he took to falsely affirm that he’d followed the owner’s instructions. Had he done so, he would have precluded any liability on his part. Since he didn’t do that, he is likely telling the truth.

But Abaye points out a limitation to the principle of miggo: If there’s a question about something others can call you out on, you don’t get the benefit of the doubt:

Abaye said to Rava: We do not use the principle of “why would I lie?” in a place where there are witnesses.

Abaye infers that there were witnesses to the renter’s donkey ride. From the plain language of the text, it’s not clear if those witnesses could testify as to the renter’s route or to whether there was water on the path of Nehar Pekod, but later commentaries conclude that it’s the presence of water that’s verifiable. Because the renter’s statement — and the cause of the donkey’s death — can be credibly established, miggo doesn’t apply to this situation, and the renter doesn’t enjoy a presumption he is telling the truth. 

This conclusion is codified in the Mishneh Torah, which directs the renter to pay for ignoring the owner’s instructions and concludes: “We do not say, ‘Of what value would it be for him to lie,’ in a situation where witnesses were present.” As a result, being honest about your missteps might be helpful in some circumstances, but only if no one else can support — or challenge — your story.

Read all of Bava Metzia 81 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 19th, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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