Today’s daf relates a series of stories about people collecting contested debts in dubious ways. It’s not pretty. A man hauls the boat of a dead man who owed him money right out of the water, only to have this seizure contested by the man’s heirs. A messenger sent to repay a person’s debts in another town discovers that the debtor owed far more than he had let on. And a woman who took a sack of valuable documents in repayment of a debt had the bag claimed by the heirs when the person who owed her money subsequently died. Most of these disputes wind up in court and so, on today’s daf, we get to see many examples of rabbis at work in one of their many roles: local judges.
Local judging, as today’s page reminds us, was personal. It really helped to know the individuals in the courtroom — especially when there is insufficient documentation and the defendant is asked to take an oath that they do not owe the plaintiff money, as in this story:
A certain woman was obligated to take an oath in Rava’s court. The daughter of Rav Hisda said: “I know that she is suspect with regard to taking a false oath.” Rava reversed the oath onto the other.
In this story, Rava is at first inclined to take the woman’s oath that she did not owe the money. However, the daughter of Rav Hisda, who was not only the wise offspring of an esteemed rabbi but also Rava’s wife and confidante, warns him that the woman is known to lie. Given this new information, Rava reverses the usual procedure and instead asks the plaintiff to take an oath that they are owed money.
Not everyone was thrilled with Rava’s decision — and not only the lying woman who was then forced to repay her debt. Although the Talmud has a strongly positive view of Rav Hisda’s daughter — and enough material about her that the celebrated novelist Maggie Anton wrote two imaginative novels about her life as a sorceress — it is not great judicial practice to make judgments on the word of one person. All the more so if that person is a woman. But getting between a man and his wife is tricky business. Rather than confront him directly, Rava’s colleagues try a different tactic:
On another occasion, Rav Pappa and Rav Adda bar Mattana were sitting before Rava. A certain document was brought before Rava. Rav Pappa said to Rava: “I know about this document, that it has been paid.”
Rava said to him: “Is there another person who can testify with the master (you)?”
He said to him: “No.”
Rava said to him: “Although there is the master, one witness is nothing.”
Rava does not realize the trap his colleagues have laid. Rava Pappa attests that the debt has already been repaid, eliciting the expected response: Rava politely refuses to admit the word of only one witness — even when that witness is a colleague. Now the other colleague speaks up:
Rav Adda bar Mattana said to Rava: “And should Rav Pappa not be trusted like Rav Hisda’s daughter?”
Rava replied: “(I relied on) Rav Hisda’s daughter because I know with certainty about her. However, I cannot rely on the master because I do not know with the same degree of certainty about him.”
We can imagine this was an awkward moment. True, Rav Hisda’s daughter was Rava’s confidante, but Rav Pappa was his close colleague and, as a man, technically a more suitable witness. Let’s see how Rav Pappa responds:
Rav Pappa said: “Now that the master (Rava) has said that knowing with certainty about someone is a significant matter, if for example Abba Mar, my son, about whom I know with certainty (tells me to), I can tear the document on the basis of his word.”
It is difficult to ascertain the tone of Rav Pappa’s remark. Perhaps he genuinely accepts what Rava said and applies it to his own family, saying that from here on out he will accept testimony from his own son even in the absence of a corroborating witness. Or perhaps is it sarcastic. Perhaps Abba Mar is a wild youth, someone that everyone knows should not be trusted?
The medieval Talmud commentator Rashi nudges us away from the sarcastic reading and explains that Abba Mar was an upstanding person. Rav Pappa, therefore, is simply applying the precedent Rava set in consulting with Rav Hisda’s daughter.
But reading to the end of this story, we can see that the Gemara isn’t so sure. Here is the final comment on this situation:
How can it enter your mind to tear (a document based on the word of a single witness)? Rather, I can weaken the document on the basis of his word.
The Steinsaltz commentary puts this comment in the anonymous voice of the Gemara — making it a rabbinic comment on the situation. But the use of the first person suggests to me that it could also be a continuation of Rav Pappa’s statement — showing that he indeed meant his comment sarcastically.
Either way, the Gemara ultimately seems wary of accepting singular testimony — even if it comes from someone as brilliant and trusted as Rav Hisda’s daughter. But it does acknowledge that not all who agree to take an oath are equally trustworthy, and the rabbinic judge’s knowledge of his community can help adjust his courtroom procedure to ensure a more just outcome.
Read all of Ketubot 85 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on September 29th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.