Gittin 44

Let's scroll.

Today’s daf records a challenging question that was presented to the third-generation Amora Rabbi Ami. The mishnah on yesterday’s daf states that if one sold a slave to a non-Jew, the slave goes free, which seems to imply that such a sale is prohibited. Given this, Rabbi Ami was asked:

If a slave gave himself over to a (foreign) army, and his master cannot remove him, neither through Jewish law nor through the laws of the nations of the world, what is the halakhah? Can the master take his value?

This question considers a situation where a slave flees from his owner and joins up with a foreign army that is prepared to pay the owner for the value of the slave. Is it permissible for the owner to take the money or would that be considered a sale and thus be prohibited?

The Gemara continues:

Rabbi Yirmeya said to Rabbi Zerika: Go out and study your mekhilta. He went out, studied, and discovered, as it is taught: One who sells his house (in the land of Israel) to an idolator, the monies are forbidden to him.

And if an idolator seized a Jew’s house and its owner cannot remove it (i.e., get it back), neither through Jewish law nor through the laws of the nations of the world, then he is permitted to take the value and he may write and register (the sale) in their courts, because he is like one who rescues from their possession.

In the beraita cited above, someone who sells their home in Israel to an idolator cannot accept the money because one may not benefit from idol worship. However, if an idol worshipper seizes a Jewish home in Israel and the home cannot be restored to the Jewish owner through legal means, the owner is permitted to take its value and even register its sale with the authorities. In the same spirit, if a slave cannot be retrieved from his non-Jewish owner, it should be permissible to take money in exchange. 

So that’s the answer to the question posed to Rabbi Ami. But there’s something unusual in the exchange between Rabbi Yirmeya and Rabbi Zerika, with the former telling the latter to go study mekhilta. What is that all about?

The word mekhilta is Aramaic and means “measure” or “rule,” and it was initially used to refer to certain rules of scriptural exegesis found in halakhic midrashim. Later, it came to be used as the title of the halakhic midrashim on the Book of Exodus. The issue here is that the discussion on today’s daf has little to do with Exodus. What’s more, the notion of researching a topic in the mekhilta, as a singular reference work, is not something we encounter in the Talmud. 

Given all this, the 10th-century Babylonian scholars known as the geonim explain that mekhilta should be read as megilta, the Aramaic form of the Hebrew word megillah, meaning scroll. This is because in talmudic times, the sages would collate rabbinic teachings — especially those which concerned the reasons for certain commandments — in scrolls. So when Rabbi Yirmeya instructs Rabbi Zerika to go study his mekhilta, what he’s really saying is: “Look through the scroll where a range of rabbinic rulings are recorded, and see if you can resolve this question asked of Rabbi Ami.” 

And as we see on today’s daf, he did. 

Read all of Gittin 42 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 29th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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