Talmud pages

Bava Metzia 9

Social safety nets.

Today’s daf continues our discussion of acquisition by exploring the circumstances under which someone acquires something for someone else. The mishnah states: 

If one was riding on an animal and saw a found item, and said to another: “Give it to me,” if he (the one who picked it up) took it and said: “I have acquired it for myself,” he has acquired it. But if, after giving it to the rider, he said: “I acquired it at the outset,” he has said nothing.

According to the mishnah, one can asksomeone to acquire something on their behalf, but that person is not obligated to agree. The rider only takes possession of the found object once it’s in his hand; until then, the person actually doing the work of picking the object — even at his suggestion — has the right to claim it for themself. 

The Talmud next interrogates when and how one can acquire something by proxy by bringing in a parallel from the laws of pe’ah,literally “corners,” which require farmers to leave part of their fields unharvested for the poor. According to Leviticus 19:9–11: “When you [plural] reap the harvest of your land, you [singular] shall not reap all the way to the corner of your field … you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger.”

The Torah offers an early model of a social safety net, protecting the poor from starvation. But while we might tout this law as remarkably caring toward the poor, it doesn’t include everyone. After all, many people who live in poverty may be children, elderly or have a physical disability — and reaping the corners is hard physical labor. The Book of Ruth offers a model of this law in action: Naomi was too old to glean, and so her daughter-in-law Ruth did it on her behalf. And there’s another challenge we learn from this book: It could also be dangerous for women and immigrants who were vulnerable to harassment in isolated fields (2:9).

The rabbis work to expand access to this social safety net by imagining a case where someone unrelated to a particular poor person reaps on their behalf. The Talmud quotes a mishnah from Tractate Pe’ah:

One who gleaned the produce in the corner of the field, which is given to the poor, and said: “This is for so-and-so, a poor person.” According to Rabbi Eliezer, he acquired it on the poor person’s behalf. The rabbis say: He should give it to the first poor person that he encounters.

According to Rabbi Eliezer, a gleaner can harvest for someone specific they have in mind. But the rabbis of the mishnah disagree: The reaper cannot effect acquisition for someone else, and has wrongly collected produce that they are not entitled to. Now, they are obligated to give it to the first poor person they encounter. 

Following the rule of the majority, the Talmud (and later Maimonides) conclude that only a poor person can glean on another poor person’s behalf — a rich person cannot. This is because only a poor person can glean in “the corners” in the first place.

Though it discusses the laws of acquisition by proxy, the Gemara ultimately concludes that this mishnah from Pe’ah is not a helpful parallel to the discussion of the rider, the pedestrian and the found object. But though it turns out that the mishnah inPe’ah isn’t helpful to the broader discussion on this daf, it isa helpful reminder to continually interrogate the systems in place, to ask who is included and who is excluded, and to explore ways to take care of all in need. 

Read all of Bava Metzia 9 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 8th, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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