Ketubot 100

The advantage of the court's power.

Yesterday, we looked at a mishnah that straddles yesterday’s page and today’s. We saw that the two Talmuds understand it in different ways, and that the scholar Rabbi David Weiss Halivni unearthed a third one based on the Tosefta. Today, we’ll return to that same mishnah to look closer at Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel’s claim.

Our chapter has been focused on the rights of a widow to sell her deceased husband’s land in order to cover her ongoing food expenses. Since the price of land is not always standardized, the widow could dip into her husband’s inheritors’ estate if she makes a mistake (or a “mistake”). 

We have already established, earlier in this chapter, that the widow does not need to go through an official court process to sell the land but may more expediently sell off property out of court (so she does not go hungry). Yet, our mishnah (starting at the bottom of 99b) returns to the case of a sale entrusted to the court and the benefits of going the official route. Here it is again:

Regarding the assessment of the judges: Where they decreased the price by 1/6th (of its market value) or added 1/6th, their sale is void. 

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says: Their sale is valid. If the sale is not valid, what good is the court’s power?

However, if they made a document of inspection (i.e., an announcement that people should come bid on the property) then even if they sold property worth 100 dinars for 200 dinars, or sold property worth 200 dinars for 100 dinars, their sale is valid.

The anonymous voice of the mishnah teaches that, as in the case in which the widow sells the land on her own, if the court processes a land sale on behalf of an individual and makes a gross mistake in evaluating the price of the land, the sale will be void. However, the court has a margin of error: Within 1/6th of the market price, the sale is valid.

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel suggests that the court has even more flexibility in fixing the price. As he reasons: If the sale is not valid, what good is the court’s power? Why bother selling through court if not to ensure that the sale is well and truly final? There is a caveat (perhaps part of Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel’s original words or added by a later editor — this was yesterday’s debate): In order for the court to be trusted, they need to publicize the sale through a letter of inspection, which invites the public to evaluate for themselves the properties to be sold by the court. In such cases, we trust the value even if it turns out to be quite different from what was expected.

We saw earlier that though the widow may contract the sale herself, if she makes even a small mistake the sale can be voided. Given this, she might choose to use the court as her agent, specifically to avoid scrutiny and bring the process to a swift and final conclusion, with the court taking responsibility for the details.

Rabban Gamliel’s powerful rhetorical argument — If the sale is not valid, what good is the court’s power? — is quoted in other locations in the Talmud (though not elsewhere in the Mishnah). Most interestingly, it appears in the context of a discussion of bills of divorce (Gittin 36a). There we learn of a man who wrote a divorce bill in the presence of a court, but then rescinded his consent for divorce in the presence of the messenger sent to deliver the get. The question is: Can he do that?

The presence of the court during the writing of a divorce bill is meant to stabilize the divorce process and reduce confusion or emotional manipulation (such as the husband writing and rescinding divorce papers). Here too, Rabban Gamliel asks rhetorically: If you allow the husband to rescind divorce, after it was signed in the formal setting of a courtroom, what good is the court’s power?

A rabbinic court serves many roles and, in today’s case of the widow selling off property in order to meet her daily needs, it is clearly more than simply a clearinghouse for sales. The court is meant to serve the best interests of the Jewish community. Therefore, in the case of land sales, they are given the flexibility to sell high or at a loss, all in the service of taking care of their charges.

Read all of Ketubot 100 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on October 14th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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