Talmud pages

Bava Metzia 89

To dip fruit in salt.

If all the traditions the rabbis had inherited agreed with one another, the Talmud would be a whole lot shorter. But the truism “two Jews, three opinions” has deep roots, and the talmudic rabbis spill considerable ink resolving disputes between their predecessors. A common talmudic technique is to apply the rulings to different contexts.

Today, the Talmud is discussing the rights of laborers to eat from the produce they are harvesting. We learn from a beraita that:

With regard to laborers who were harvesting figs, dates, grapes or olives — they may eat and they are exempt from separating tithes, as the Torah entitles them to eat. Nevertheless, they may not eat these fruits together with bread unless they received permission from the homeowner. Similarly, they may not dip these fruits in salt and eat.

At issue here is the matter of tithes — required donations to the Temple or to the poor. When crops are brought in from the fields, they become subject to tithes, but the Torah gives laborers permission to nosh a bit as they work without worrying whether the requisite tithes have been counted and separated. This privilege should not be abused: They should not make a meal of it right there in the field. However, according to this beraita, if the owner explicitly permits them to turn the field snack into a meal (by eating it with bread or salt), that means the owner is aware and will make sure the produce is properly tithed.

With regard to dipping the produce in salt, however, an alternate beraita states:

If a person hired a laborer to harvest grapes, olives, or to gather any other fruit, the laborer may eat and they are exempt from separating tithes, as the Torah entitled these laborers to eat … and they may dip these fruits in salt and eat.

This second source suggests dipping in salt is still just snacking and does not constitute a meal. How do the rabbis account for the difference? By saying that the two texts are not talking about the same thing.

According to Abaye, the first beraita is discussing a case in the land of Israel and the second one is discussing one outside of the land of Israel: 

In the land of Israel, dipping fruit in salt establishes a meal.

Outside the land of Israel, dipping fruit in salt does not establish a meal.

This makes a certain amount of sense. The laws of tithing only apply in the land of Israel. So, in Israel, one is especially careful not to make a meal of the picked produce in the field — and this includes not dipping it in salt. 

Outside of Israel, however, where the laws of tithing do not apply, there is less need to be strict about what constitutes a meal and snacking on salted produce while harvesting is permitted. Case closed?

Not so fast, says Rava, who finds fault with Abaye’s approach:

Is there any produce with regard to which the law is that in the land of Israel dipping establishes it as a meal by Torah law, and yet outside the land of Israel dipping does not establish it as a meal? 

If dipping produce in Israel establishes a meal, says Rava, shouldn’t the same be true outside of Israel, irrespective of whethether tithing laws apply? 

Rava suggests an alternative resolution: The first beraita involves a case when the laborers’ permission to eat is governed by the laws in the Torah but the second beraita involves a situation where the owner is more permissive than the Torah, which is why it is OK to eat fruit dipped in salt. But this permission still has limits, explained in another clause of the beraita:

In a case where a laborer stipulated with the owner beforehand that they may eat even when they are not entitled to do so by Torah law, if they eat the fruit one by one, they may eat without separating tithes, but if they consume two by two they may not eat without separating tithes.

This leads Rava to the following conclusion:

Whether in the land of Israel or outside the land of Israel … if they ate one fruit, dipping it in salt does constitute a meal (and is permitted), but if they ate two, dipping in salt does establish it as a meal (and, even if they receive permission to eat two at a time from the homeowner, it is not permitted, unless they separate tithes before doing so).

And so, says Rava, the rules for laborers are the same in any country: Laborers in the field may dip a single piece of fruit in salt, but not two. With the Talmud, we don’t always get to say this, but for today: case closed.

Read all of Bava Metzia 89 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 27th, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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