Ketubot 99

Who says what?

On today’s daf, we read the following mishnah:

The assessment of the judges: Where they decreased one-sixth or added one-sixth, their sale is void.

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says: Their sale is valid. If so (that the sale is void), then what advantage is there to the power of the court?

However, if they made a document of inspection, 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 mishnah here is dealing with a case where a court is selling property on behalf of an individual. The anonymous first opinion (known as the Tanna Kamma) states that if the court-approved sale price is more or less than one-sixth off from the value of the property, the sale is void. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says such a sale is valid, for otherwise what good is the right of a court to determine the property’s sale price? Finally, the Tanna Kamma returns to state that if a document of inspection is created — a public announcement of a sale that enabled people to assess its value — a much wider discrepancy is allowed, even up to double the sale price. 

Or at least that’s what it seems this mishnah is saying. In his commentary on Ketubot, Rabbi David Weiss Halivni teaches that this mishnah can actually be read in several different ways.

The Babylonian Talmud, says Halivni, reads the mishnah as we just did, seeing Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel’s opinion as a parenthetical and the first and third paragraphs both as the opinion of the Tanna Kamma. In contrast, the Jerusalem Talmud ascribes the third paragraph to Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel as well. What difference does this make? Well, since the law generally follows the majority opinion (reflected in this case by the ruling of the Tanna Kamma), the version in the Jerusalem Talmud would lead us to conclude that the law is that a sale is invalid if it deviates more than one-sixth from the property value no matter what — even if a public announcement is made. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel’s position, that a sale is valid even if it exceeds a one-sixth deviation as long as there is a public announcement, is the minority opinion and is not followed. 

Based upon the Tosefta (Ketubot 11:3), Halivni suggests a third possible understanding of the mishnah. Here, the Tanna Kamma and Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel agree that a sale is valid if the price differential is less than one-sixth, while anything greater than that requires an announcement. Where they disagree is only in the case of a sale that has a price variation of exactly one-sixth. In that case, the Tanna Kamma says void, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says valid. 

So which is it? What does our mishnah mean?

The commentators codify the law according to the first reading outlined above. This is not surprising, as in the centuries following the canonization of the Talmud, the center of Jewish life was in Babylonia and the Babylonian Talmud became the standard for determining Jewish law. (This is also why we study the Babylonian Talmud in Daf Yomi and not the Jerusalem Talmud, which is considered the less authoritative of the two.) But as Halivni’s commentary points out, the fact that this became the most influential reading does not mean it is the only way to understand what the mishnah says.

As we by now well understand, the function of the Gemara is to tease out the various implications of, and resolve apparent contradictions in, the mishnaic text. Yet Halivni’s commentary reminds us that even the plain meaning of the mishnah itself is not always clear. The mishnah on today’s daf has been understood in different ways at different times and in different places, leading to multiple plausible readings. 

So instead of asking what a mishnah means, it is often more helpful to ask how many ways a given mishnah can be understood. Asking in this way reminds us that there are, and we should be open to, multiple interpretations. Which, by the way, might be what the Talmud is trying to teach us in the first place.

Read all of Ketubot 99 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on October 13th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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