Gittin 51

Wallets and oxen.

When it comes to finding and returning lost objects, not all are treated the same. For instance, on today’s daf the rabbis ask: What’s the difference between a wallet and an ox? This question isn’t the set-up for a dad joke, but an opportunity for significant legal reflection on the dynamics of finding and returning other people’s property. 

The mishnah on Gittin 48b stated: 

One who finds a lost item does not take an oath, for the betterment of the world.

If someone finds a wallet, for example, and returns it to its rightful owner, she does not have to swear that she hasn’t stolen any of the money it contained. Treating the finder as guilty, and subjecting them to an oath on those grounds, would likely make people think twice before taking responsibility for returning them. And that would be bad for everyone.

Today the Gemara discusses this idea in greater depth with a variant on this scenario:

Rabbi Yitzhak says: (If the owner of a lost wallet brings a claim against the finder, saying:) “You found two wallets tied together that belong to me,” and the other person says: “I found only one,” — then the finder takes an oath.

(If the owner claims:) “You found two oxen tied together that belong to me,” and the other says: “There was only one,” — he does not take an oath.

Many wallets are made of leather, which comes from … oxen. And both can be quite valuable. So then what’s really the difference between a wallet and an ox? It turns out — a lot, including whether or not, when challenged in court and accused of stealing, their finder is required to take a vow. Why? 

Oxen become detached from each other. Wallets do not become detached from each other.

Not all lost things are the same. We can reasonably assume that if two wallets are tied together, one is not going to just walk off on its own. But an ox might do exactly that. So, according to Rabbi Yitzhak, if someone claims to find only one wallet and an owner is certain that there were two tied together, they must take a vow that they didn’t untie the wallets and pocket one. But who can really control a cow 100% of the time? Two oxen tied together might pull themselves apart and so it is reasonable that someone would find only one of them wandering by itself. 

But wait! The mishnah from 48b that generated this discussion didn’t distinguish between someone who lost one item or two tied together — it just stated that the finder is not required to take a vow, presumably under any circumstances. How could Rabbi Yitzhak disagree with the mishnah? Is Rabbi Yitzhak just wrong? Is he so brazen that he is disagreeing with the mishnah without justification? 

The Gemara explains that Rabbi Yitzhak was following the opinion of an earlier rabbi, Rabbi Eliezer b. Yaakov, who had a different position on when a finder or borrower must offer a vow.  

The Gemara is going to continue by exploring Rabbi Eliezer b. Yaakov’s positions but I think it’s worth stopping for a moment here. Because today’s discussion reminds us that when someone offers a position that seems strange or problematic, there is value in asking for their reasoning or, in the case of a rabbinic teaching, their sources. Perhaps there is a relatively unknown tradition or text that they are relying on.

Perhaps we don’t know everything, and can learn from each other. Or perhaps they are just wrong — but we won’t know which of these it is if we don’t take the time to ask. As with wallets and oxen, if we take the time to dig, we might sometimes uncover a second idea, source, or way of thinking that accidentally wandered off but is worth recovering.

Read all of Gittin 51 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on July 6th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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