Bava Metzia 83

Higher standards.

On today’s daf, we find two stories that highlight an employer’s responsibility to care for employees. Here’s the first: 

It happened to Rabba bar bar Hanan that certain porters broke his barrel of wine. He took their cloaks. They came and told Rav. Rav said: “Give them their cloaks.” Rabba bar bar Hanan said to him: “Is this the halakhah?” Rav said to him: “Yes, as it is written: That you may walk in the way of good men. (Proverbs 2:20)” He gave them their cloaks. 

The porters said: “We are poor people and we toiled all day and we are hungry and we have nothing.” Rav said: “Go and give their wages.” Rabba bar bar Hanan said to him: “Is this the halakhah?” Rav said to him: “Yes, as it is written: And keep the paths of the righteous. (Proverbs 2:20)”

After a wine barrel is broken by his porters, Rabba bar bar Hanan takes their cloaks as collateral, but Rav instructs him to return them. Despite the botched job, the porters then ask for their wages and Rav agrees.

Rabba bar bar Hanan questions both rulings, which contradict the laws of bailees we learned earlier in this chapter. Rav affirms that his rulings are indeed the law, answering both challenges by quoting Proverbs. But both verses he cites are about being righteous — not about the laws of damages, so it’s rather ambiguous whether Rav’s rulings constitute an actual law or merely a charge to act with compassion beyond the letter of the law. 

This story evokes a specific biblical passage about lending money to a poor neighbor: “If you take your neighbor’s garment in pledge, you must return it before the sun sets. It is the only available clothing — it is what covers the skin. In what else shall [your neighbor] sleep?” (Exodus 22:25-26) The verse enjoins a lender to respond to the specific needs of the borrower, though here too the line between law and charity is not clear. Returning the cloak does not mean the loan is forgiven, only that the lender must now trust the poor person to repay the loan even without holding collateral. 

According to many commentators, Rav is indeed demanding that Rabba bar bar Hanan act beyond the letter of the law. Still, Rav calls his ruling “halakhah,” elevating care for employees in this situation to the level of an obligation, even though this care is not an outgrowth of the laws of damages or bailees. Often, the end of a chapter of Talmud is precisely where we find stories that break the legal mold and provide moral messages that supersede the confines of strict legal regulation.

Next, our daf introduces the first mishnah of a new chapter about employment conditions. According to the mishnah, work hours and the provision of food is automatically set according to the local custom. Then we get to the second to the story: 

There was an incident involving Rabbi Yohanan ben Matya, who said to his son: “Go out and hire laborers for us.” He went and pledged sustenance for them. And when he came to his father, he said to him: “My son, even if you were to prepare a feast for them like that of Solomon in his time, you would not have fulfilled your obligation to them, as they are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Rather, before they begin work, go out and say to them: (You are hired) on the condition that you have from me only bread and legumes.” 

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says: “He did not need to state (this condition, as the principle is): Everything is in accordance with the regional custom.”

Rabban Gamliel’s position is that the son’s behavior was in line with the mishnah: You need not negotiate work conditions when there is a clear local norm. But the father, Rabbi Yohanan ben Matya, demands that his son communicate clearly: We are only providing the standard fare. Why? The workers, he explains, deserve a respectable feast, not the bare minimum. Therefore, they must consent to the conditions. Ironically, Rabbi Yohanan ben Matya does not actually offer more food. Rather, he recognizes his employees’ dignity by not leaning on assumptions, instead communicating expectations before the job begins. 

These two stories, which end one chapter and begin a new one, share a common message: Employers must see their workers as people. In the second story, Rabbi Yohanan Ben Matya recognizes there is a moral burden in how you contract new workers, but ultimately the law provides enough protection. On the other hand, Rav is more revolutionary, dismissing the law as too minimal and requiring Rabba bar bar Hanan to live up to a higher standard.

Read all of Bava Metzia 83 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 21st, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

Discover More

Kiddushin 9

By the crown of the king.

Gittin 75

More clarity, please.