Bava Metzia 88

Radii of concern.

Today’s daf begins with a discussion of when exactly a person is required to separate tithes from their produce:

Rabbi Yannai said: “Untithed produce is not obligated in tithing until it sees the front of the house, as it is stated: I have removed the consecrated from the house. (Deuteronomy 26:13)” 

Rabbi Yohanan said: “Even into the courtyard, as it is said: And they shall eat in your gate and be satisfied. (Deuteronomy 26:12)”

Rabbi Yannai believes one is not required to tithe one’s produce until one is face-to-face with one’s house, while Rabbi Yohanan argues that the obligation begins from the moment one enters one’s courtyard. While this debate may not seem of great consequence, the verses each chooses to support his argument reveal something interesting. 

Rabbi Yannai cites Deuteronomy 26:13, which contains the formula one recites upon finishing tithing: “Then you shall say before the Lord, your God, ‘I have removed the consecrated from the house, and I have also given to the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, according to all Your commandment that You commanded me; I have not transgressed Your commandments, nor have I forgotten.’” The rabbinic understanding is that this verse refers to all the tithes — the portions given to the priests and the Levites, those that are eaten in Jerusalem and those that are given to the poor.

Rabbi Yohanan cites the verse just before, from Deuteronomy 26:12, which reads in full: “When you have finished tithing all the tithes of your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give them to the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, so that they can eat to satiety in your gates.” The focus here is on a specific tithe, the tithes taken from produce every third year and given to the poor so they are satiated. 

While these two verses are connected — indeed, they are adjacent to one another in the Torah and one serves as an introduction to the other — they have slightly different foci. Rabbi Yannai’s verse is a declaration made in the first-person, and it focuses on all the tithes one must give. The scope of gifts is broader, but the locus is the house. The verse Rabbi Yohanan uses is an objective description rather than a first-person declaration, and the gifts it mentions are more limited in scope: the tithe set aside for the poor and the needy. 

In his discussion of these obligations, Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Gifts to the Poor 6) includes two interesting laws:

The owners don’t have the right to apportion the tithe for the poor that is given at the granary at their discretion … When, by contrast, one gives out the tithe of the poor in one’s home, one may give it to any poor person to whom one desires.

When [must one give enough to satisfy a poor person]? In the field. However, if one tithes in one’s home, one may divide it among all the poor people, even giving each an olive’s worth, for one is only commanded to satiate a poor person in the field, when there is no one else from whom to take, as it is written, ‘…and they shall eat in your gates and be satisfied.'”

Mishneh Torah, Gifts to the Poor, 6:10,12

In other words, according to Maimonides, you are obligated to fully satiate a poor person if you take tithes in the field (and notice that he cites the same verse Rabbi Yohanan uses). But according to both Rabbi Yohanan and Rabbi Yanai, you’re not obligated to take tithes in the field — only when the produce arrives at your courtyard or house. 

This contradiction is resolved by the 12th-century talmudic commentator known as the Ra’avad, who argues that the Gemara is discussing a case of produce that does not have a granary. Fruit that doesn’t require processing and is brought straight into the house would be subject to Rabbi Yannai or Rabbi Yohanan’s opinion, but wheat, which must first be processed in a granary, would be subject to earlier tithes. 

What I find most interesting about these laws is the inverse relationship between the distance from home and the circle of responsibility. As the distance from field to courtyard to home shrinks, the people included in one’s gifts expands. Rabbi Yannai only obligates one in tithing at one’s house, but he cites a verse that includes all types of tithes and consecrated food. Rabbi Yohanan, who obligates at one’s courtyard, cites a verse focusing on the tithe given specifically to the poor. And Maimonides, who discusses tithes in the field — the largest radius from home — argues that the reason the verse obligates feeding a poor person to satiety is because there are fewer people around, while in the home one presumably has more claimants to satisfy and therefore has a lesser obligation. In our most intimate private spaces, our homes, we are given more choice, even if that means a bigger crowd. In more public spaces, our fields, we are given less choice, but we satisfy the needs of those we are feeding more fully.

Read all of Bava Metzia 88 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 26th, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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