Bava Metzia 93

Generational divides.

For most of this tractate, we’ve been discussing the financial liabilities of the different kinds of people who take responsibility, paid or unpaid, for other people’s things. And on today’s daf, we finally get the mishnah that lays out the four categories of people who do this work: an unpaid bailee, a borrower, a paid bailee and a renter. The Gemara then continues to interrogate each category, beginning with the paid bailee, who is paid to guard another’s property.

A certain shepherd was herding animals on the bank of the Pappa River, when one of them slipped and fell into the water (and drowned).

He came before Rabbah, and he exempted him, stating: What could he have done? He safeguarded them (in the manner) that people safeguard.

The mishnah tells us that a paid bailee is not financially responsible if an animal dies, and we’ve seen earlier that this refers to a case where the animal dies in a way that the shepherd could not control. By contrast, the paid bailee is financially responsible if the animal is lost in a way that he should have prevented. Does the shepherd have to pay the sheep’s owner for its loss?

Rabbah believes that as long as a paid bailee is guarding the property in the normal way that people guard property, the paid bailee does not have to pay the owner back. His junior colleague Abaye then repeatedly and vigorously challenges this position. Let’s look at one of those challenges:

Abaye raised an objection to him from a beraita: To what extent is a paid bailee obligated to safeguard? To the extent of: “Thus I was: In the day the drought consumed me, and the frost by night”(Genesis 31:40).

Abaye cites a verse in which Jacob, about to leave his uncle Laban to return home to Canaan, lays out all the work he did guarding Laban’s sheep. Abaye reads Jacob’s statement as articulating a higher standard of care than is normal. And remember that Jacob is paid for his 14 years of shepherding in wives, which makes him a paid bailee. While most people take breaks to eat, drink, sleep and get warm, Jacob dedicated himself 24/7 to Laban’s sheep — just as a paid bailee should.

Rabbah rebuts this objection, explaining that the beraita is not actually explaining the responsibility of a normal paid bailee, but the responsibility of a city watchman, who has military training and therefore is paid a higher amount than your average shepherd.

Abaye said to him: Is that to say that Jacob our forefather was a city watchman?

He replied: It means that Jacob said to Laban: I safeguarded for you an extra safeguarding, like a city watchmen.

Does Rabbah really think that Jacob had a side hustle as a city guard? Does anything in the book of Genesis suggest that the patriarch had extensive military training? Of course not. But that doesn’t limit the rhetorical effect of insisting you went above and beyond what was expected of you when asking for a raise (or to leave your difficult father-in-law and take a whole bunch of his flock with you).

Most of the daf is taken up with Abaye raising different objections and Rabbah successfully rebutting each of them, insisting that a paid bailee is only responsible to watch items in the normal way, without going above and beyond. Is this a generational divide, where the older generation (Rabbah) has one standard of responsibility and a younger generation (Abaye) a more stringent one? The discussion ends by challenging this idea:

Rav Hisda and Rabbah bar Rav Huna do not hold in accordance with this opinion of Rabbah, as they say (the owner can tell the bailee): For this I gave you a wage, so that you should safeguard for me with an additional safeguarding.

Rav Hisda and Rabbah bar Rav Huna are Rabbah’s peers, not his juniors. They insist that Rabbah is wrong and that paying a bailee to watch your property assumes a higher standard of care than someone who is just doing you a favor. It would be easy to characterize the debate between Abaye and Rabbah as junior vs. senior. But as today’s daf reminds us, while generational divides are often easy explanations for disagreements, easy doesn’t mean accurate. The older generation was itself diverse and divided.

Before we read this conclusion as talmudic truth, it’s worth noting that while the printed Talmud names the central figure as Rabbah, most of the older talmudic manuscripts actually read Rava, who was not a teacher but a peer of Abaye. But again, this reading reminds us that even within a rabbinic generation, there is disagreement — with real stakes for issues of liability.

Read all of Bava Metzia 93 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 31, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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