Bava Metzia 94


In the movie “The Princess Bride,” the villain Vizzini, played by Wallace Shawn, shouts “Inconceivable!” any time his pretty conceivable plans go awry. Inigo Montoya, played by Mandy Patinkin, challenges Vizzini with the iconic line: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Just because you can’t do something, is it truly impossible? 

The discussion on today’s daf entertains this very question. It begins with the final mishnah of the seventh chapter of Bava Metzia, which records this principle: 

Any condition that is preceded by an action, the condition is void (and the promise remains intact). And (any condition) that one can ultimately fulfill, but he stipulated with him initially, his condition is valid. 

According to the mishnah, a condition is void if it is stated after an action. For example, if my friend wants to lend me her car on the condition that I fill it with gas before returning it, the stipulation must be stated first: “If you fill the tank before you return it, then you can borrow the car.” According to the mishnah, a formulation of “You can borrow the car if you fill the tank,” with the condition following the action, is not valid. 

The second thing the mishnah says is that in order for a stipulation to be valid, it must be possible to fulfill it. This seems obvious, but the Gemara follows up: 

Rav Tavla says that Rav says: This is the statement of Rabbi Yehuda ben Teima, but the rabbis say: Even though one cannot ultimately fulfill (the condition), and he stipulated with regard to it initially, his condition is valid.

Here, the ruling is clarified: Even if the person cannot fulfill the condition they originally agreed to, the condition is still valid. (For example, if I promised to fill the tank but the car broke down and could no longer be gassed up, the condition is still valid.) But what of the truly inconceivable? 

As it is taught: (If a man said to his wife): This is your bill of divorce on the condition that you ascend to the skies, or on the condition that you descend to the depths; or on the condition that you swallow a reed of one hundred cubits in size; or on the condition that you cross the Great Sea by foot — only if the condition was fulfilled and she did as he demanded is this a valid bill of divorce, but if the condition was not fulfilled it is not a valid bill of divorce. 

None of these conditions are possible to fulfill, and so the get is ruled invalid. (If this story sounds familiar, it’s because it appeared on Gittin 84.) 

One might think that’s the end of the discussion, but of course it’s not. Along comes another rabbi with a different — and, as it turns out, authoritative — opinion: 

Rabbi Yehuda ben Teima says: (A document such as this) is a valid bill of divorce. As Rabbi Yehuda ben Teima stated a principle: Any condition that one cannot ultimately fulfill, and yet he stipulated to this effect initially, he is considered as only exaggerating, and the document is valid. 

According to Rabbi Yehuda ben Teima, this type of impossible stipulation is the contractual equivalent of “just kidding!” And so he rules that even if the condition is impossible to satisfy, the get is still valid. 

What are we to make of this? Why would a man execute a bill of divorce with such a nonsensical stipulation embedded in it? 

According to Rashi, in the case of a bill of divorce at least, the husband is playing mind games and using impossible scenarios to torment his wife. It could also be less nefarious — perhaps the husband is simply teasing his wife by saying, in essence, “If you fly across the sky, we’ll be divorced.” The husband may have no actual intention of divorcing his wife, but unfortunately for him, it seems the law in this case is such that his bill of divorce is nevertheless valid. 

And so, while it seems inconceivable that a get with such a stipulation could be executed, it appears that I, like Vizzini, need to rethink what that word actually means. 

Read all of Bava Metzia 94 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 1, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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