Bava Metzia 97

Cat and mouse.

In the 1991 classic film An American Tail, the Mousekewitz family flees antisemitic persecution in Russia and makes its way to America. As you might be able to tell from the name, the Mousekewitzes are Jewish mice. And as they make their way across the Atlantic, they dream of the wonderful world that awaits them. As Papa Mousekwitz sings, “There are no cats in America.” It truly is a goldene medina.  

Today’s daf offers us a different, if no less fraught, vision of cat-mouse relations. 

A certain man borrowed a cat from another. The mice banded together against it and killed it.

In the days before mouse traps, someone with a rodent problem might borrow a cat and task it with killing mice. But in this case, it’s the mice who kill the cat.

Rav Ashi notes that the case hinges on whether a cat being tasked with killing mice is considered normal and expected or not. We have already learned that if a borrowed animal dies while being used in a normal and expected way, the borrower is not obligated to reimburse the animal’s owner for the cost of the animal. 

Now things get weird. 

Rav Mordekhai said to Rav Ashi: Avimi of Hagronya said this in the name of Rava: For a man killed by women, there is neither judgment nor a judge.

Let’s unpack Rav Mordekhai’s response. Rav Ashi has asked if the borrower is liable for the death of the cat. Rav Mordekhai’s response is that if women gang up on a man and murder him, they are not liable for his death. Really? Presumably, if mice kill a cat, that isn’t the normal way of things, and so could not have been anticipated or prevented. Rashi explains that similarly, a man is not ordinarily killed by women, so this is an out-of-the-ordinary action that the man should have prevented. Because it is partially his fault, the women are not liable.  

On the one hand, the parallel is clear: The man is the cat and the women are the mice. And if we look at modern murder rates, it is certainly far more common for men to murder women than the other way around. On the other hand, the idea that murderous women would not be liable because it is partially the male murder victim’s fault for not being predatory enough is deeply troubling on both a moral and a legal level.

Indeed, it’s so troubling that Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz explains this passage in a starkly different manner, suggesting that Rav Mordekhai is making the opposite point as what is written in the text — that it’s so obvious the women are liable that no judgment is needed. Similarly, it’s so obvious that a cat can be used to hunt mice, that the borrower is exempt from liability if the cat dies in the process. To be clear, that’s not what the text of the Talmud says, but it makes sense morally.

Ultimately, this discussion offers us a fascinating look at how the rabbis think about gender relations, what it means to be a proper cat or man, who is predator and who is prey — and the practical legal implications of these ideas. But ladies, before you go around murdering men with impunity, let’s also remember that men aren’t actually cats and women (and Jews) aren’t mice. Sometimes a cat is just a cat.

Read all of Bava Metzia 97 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 4, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

Discover More

Kiddushin 41

Betrothal in absentia.

Gittin 75

More clarity, please.