Gittin 14

Panic at the market.

We learn on today’s daf that if a person appoints another person as a messenger to deliver goods, the original person remains financially responsible for the goods until they are delivered. So if Rachel asks Rebecca to deliver money to Leah, and Rebecca is robbed on the journey, Rachel can’t require Rebecca to reimburse her for the loss. But if the sender doesn’t want to be financially liable for the money, they can ask the messenger to legally acquire it on behalf of the recipient, and then the recipient (Leah) would be responsible for the loss, instead of Rachel.

It comes down to this: Whoever owns the goods is responsible for them. Since goods are vulnerable during transport, senders are incentivized to transfer ownership as soon as possible, and recipients prefer not to take ownership until the items are actually in their hands. As we see on today’s daf, these competing incentives can lead to dramatic disputes. 

Rabbi Ahai son of Rabbi Yoshiya had a silver vessel in the city of Neharde’a.  He said to Rabbi Dostai bar Rabbi Yannai and to Rabbi Yosei bar Keifar: “When you come (from Neharde’a) bring it to me.” They went and (the people who were in possession of the vessel) gave it to them.

So far so good. But now, having relinquished the valuable vessel, the people who are financially responsible for it have a second thought:

They (the people who had been holding on to the vessel) said to them (the two rabbis): “Let us perform acquisition with you.” They (the rabbis) said to them: “No.” 

What to do in this case? Neither group is willing to take responsibility for the silver vessel during what may well be a dangerous journey. If no one will take financial responsibility, then perhaps it cannot go on a journey at all! 

They said to them (the rabbis): “If so, return it to us.” Rabbi Dostai son of Rabbi Yannai said to them: “Yes.” Rabbi Yosei bar Keifar said to them: “No.”

The two rabbis disagree on what to do. The senders only raised the possibility of acquisition once the two rabbis had already taken the vessel, to bring it to Rabbi Ahai. Now the senders are trying to change the implied terms. Rabbi Yosei insists that they do not have that right (and following the halakhic logic of the broader discussion, Rabbi Yosei bar Keifar is correct) and he refuses to return the vessel. Rabbi Dostai seems willing to give it back. And here’s where things get violent and weird: 

They (the senders) tormented (Rabbi Yosei bar Keifar to get the vessel back). He said to (Rabbi Dostai): “See, my Master, what they are doing.” (Rabbi Dostai) said to them (the senders): “Good; hit him.”

What?! Why on earth would Rabbi Dostai encourage the senders — who are in the wrong — to turn violently on his colleague and co traveler?

That is exactly the question that Rabbi Ahai asks when the two men ultimately return without the silver vessel. Rabbi Dostai now answers for his strange behavior: 

Rabbi Dostai said to him: “Those people are the size of a cubit, and their hats were a cubit, and they spoke from their midpoints, and their names were frightening: Arda and Arta and Pili Bereish. If you were to say to them: Restrain this person — they would restrain. Kill him — they would kill. Had they killed Dostai, who would give Yannai, my father, another son like me?

Rabbi Ahai said to him: “Are these people close to the government?” He said to him: “Yes”. He said: “Do they have horses and mules that run after them?” He said to them: “Yes.

Rabbi Dostai essentially concedes that — from a legal perspective — he should have refused to give back the vessel, and should certainly not have told the people to hit his colleague. But he was scared of them, due to their size, sonorous voices, fearsome hats, names and eagerness to commit violence. Add to that the power of the imperial government and large animals that can quickly chase down fleeing rabbis, and no wonder Rabbi Dostai gave the vessel back and encouraged hitting (but not murder!). 

The question of financial responsibility is not simply a theoretical one, but has a real effect on everyone involved in the transfer of goods. In an impossible situation, he chose what he thought was the least harmful path forward. And as we learn at the end of the story, Rabbi Ahai ultimately agrees: 

He said to him: If so, you acted well. 

Read all of Gittin 14 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 30th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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