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Gittin 50

Death and credit.

Today’s daf continues a complicated discussion begun in a mishnah two days ago about paying off debts of various kinds under different circumstances. Among the questions raised is how can a creditor collect payment from the estate of a dead person that has been apportioned by the now deceased person to a third party.

The Gemara cites a beraita (early rabbinic source) that teaches as follows:

If a person on his deathbed said: Give two hundred dinars to so-and-so, and three hundred to so-and-so, and four hundred to so-and-so, one does not say that whoever appears first in the deed acquires (the money first). Therefore, if a promissory note emerged against (the deceased), the creditor collects from all of them.

In this case, a dying person makes a variety of bequests. The only problem is that this money was not theirs to give because it was owed to someone else (who later shows up with a promissory note). In such a case, the recipients of the deathbed bequests are out of luck. The money belongs to the creditor, who can collect from all of them. 

But what if the dying person was more specific about the order in which the bequests were to be parceled out? The Gemara continues:

But if he said: Give two hundred dinars to so-and-so, and after him to so-and-so, and after him to so-and-so, then one says: Anyone who appears first in the deed acquires his money first. Therefore, if a promissory note emerged against him (the deceased), the creditor first collects from the last. If he does not have enough, he collects from the previous person. If he does not have, he collects from the person listed before the previous person.

Here, where the bequests were made by the dying person in a specific order, the creditor with the promissory note collects from the last recipient first, because that person was named last in the order of the gifts. If that person doesn’t have enough to cover the debt, he moves to the next in line, and so on.

In the ensuing discussion, the Gemara parses several more elements. Is the rule the same even if there’s no physical promissory note? Is the deed in question really the written will? Does the beraita’s suggestion to hit up the last benefactor first stand even if the parcels of land that are sold off to pay the debt are of different values? The Gemara offers no answers, but perhaps the bigger question is: Why are we talking about debtors, creditors and property value here at all? 

For that, we need to remember that the first creditor of any estate is a person’s wife (recall that a ketubah is paid out to both widows and divorcees). Tractate Gittin is, at its core, about what happens when a marriage ends, and that includes figuring out the financial aspects of dissolution. As with so many other discussions in the Talmud, conversations might meander, but the thread tying them to the original topic remains. 

In Hamlet, King Claudius’ counselor Polonius has some advice on this topic for his own son, Laertes. “Neither a borrower nor a lender be / For loan oft loses both itself and friend / And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.”

While that’s a wonderful goal for a privileged child who grew up at court, most people don’t have that luxury. Chances are that at some point in our lives, we’re likely to borrow or lend money. Given that, it makes sense that the rabbis would act to ensure that there are clear rules of engagement around finance. But even if we can’t follow Polonius’ guidance on borrowing, we can strive to heed his subsequent piece of advice: “To thine own self be true.”

Read all of Gittin 50 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on July 5th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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