Talmudic pages

Gittin 48

Irrational actors.

The fifth chapter of Tractate Gittin begins on today’s daf with a discussion of how the rabbis legislated the collection of debts. The mishnah describes three categories of land: iddit (land of superior quality), benonit (land of intermediate quality) and zibborit (land of inferior quality). Each of these three are linked to specific types of payments. 

The mishnah states: 

(The court) appraises land of superior quality for payment to injured parties. And a creditor collects from intermediate-quality land. And a woman’s marriage contract from her husband’s inferior-quality land.

According to the mishnah, if someone causes damage to another’s property, the repayment must come from land that the court has appraised as iddit. When a creditor collects debt, they must do it from land that is benonit. And a woman’s marriage contract should be collected from her husband’s zibborit land. 

Why would the mishnah rule this way? After all, a woman’s ketubah payment is fixed. If it was paid from more land of lesser quality or less land of higher quality, the value is the same. We get a clue from Rashi: “It is preferable for a person to collect a smaller amount of high-quality land rather than a larger amount of low-quality land.”

Rashi suggests that people don’t value land of differing quality the same, even if they have the same monetary value. This explanation doesn’t adhere to the claims of classical economists, who would appraise more land of lesser quality the same as less land of higher quality.

But it does align with more recent arguments from the behavioral economists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, Nobel laureates whose lives Michael Lewis beautifully wrote about in his book The Undoing Project. Tversky and Kahneman challenged the axiom that reason alone drives human economic behavior, bringing the study of economics into accord with the seemingly obvious fact that humans are not rational robots. As Rabbi Shlomo Zuckier has argued, this framework helps explain the rabbis’ thinking on this subject. 

“On an objective plane a field that is iddit is no more valuable than one that is zibborit at the same price,” Zuckier has written. “While this is true from the perspective of classical economics, one might argue that, behaviorally, people would generally prefer to have the higher quality item over a similarly priced item of lower quality. This is for the simple reason that people enjoy having something of higher quality, even if its objective value is equivalent.”

We get another powerful insight into human psychology through another declaration in the mishnah:

One who finds a lost item (and returns it to its rightful owner) is not required to take an oath (that he did not keep any part of the lost item for himself).

In elucidating this point, Maimonides explains in the Mishneh Torah: “For if a finder of a lost article were required to take an oath, he would ignore the lost article and proceed on his way, so that he would not be required to take the oath.”

Once again, the rabbis show keen insight here: Humans are motivated by multiple and competing forces. A person who finds a lost object might have an inherent desire to do the right thing and return it to its owner, but that same finder is also protective of their time. By allowing the finder to avoid the hassle of taking an oath about the finding, they create a system that is more likely to result in lost objects being returned to their owners. 

In both cases, the rabbis understand that the human mind is complex in its motivations and endeavor to create a system responsive to humans in all our peculiarities. They understood that resources, whether time or land, carry a psychological value as well as a material one. This lens allows us to extract deeper meaning from how the rabbis thought about the ways that human beings approach their lives.

Read all of Gittin 48 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on July 3rd, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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