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Just Deserts: Bava Metzia, Daf 83

Movers once broke a keg of wine belonging to Rabbah bar bar Chana. He seized their cloaks, as restitution for his loss. They came before Rav complaining that Rabbah had acted improperly. Rav listened to the case and then instructed Rabbah, “Give them back their cloaks!”

Considering it was their fault the barrel broke, Rabbah was surprised at the ruling in their favor. “Is that really the law?” he responded bemusedly.

“Yes,” replied Rav, “for King Solomon declared, ‘So that you follow the path of the good.’”

Rabbah accepted the judgment and returned their cloaks.

But the movers weren’t done. Once again, they approached Rav and pleaded, “We are poor, and we have toiled all day. Now we are starving and have nothing to eat for dinner.”

Rav heard them and instructed Rabbah, “Go and pay them their wages!”

Expressing even greater astonishment, Rabbah exclaimed, “Is that the law?”

“Yes,” he replied, quoting the continuation of the verse in the Book of Proverbs, “and guard the ways of the righteous.”1

***

Today’s daf discusses the liability of workers to pay for damage they inadvertently caused that could have been avoided had they taken proper precautions.

אַתְקֵין רַב חִיָּיא בַּר יוֹסֵף בְּסִיכְרָא הָנֵי דְּדָרוּ בְּאַגְרָא וְאִיתְּבַר נְשַׁלֵּם פַּלְגָא מַאי טַעְמָא נְפִישׁ לְחַד וְזוּטַר לִתְרֵי קָרוֹב לְאוֹנֶס וְקָרוֹב לִפְשִׁיעָה בְּדִיגְלָא מְשַׁלֵּם כּוּלַּהּ רַבָּה בַּר בַּר חָנָן תְּבַרוּ לֵיהּ הָנְהוּ שָׁקוֹלָאֵי חָבִיתָא דְחַמְרָא שְׁקַל לִגְלִימַיְיהוּ אֲתוֹ אֲמַרוּ לְרַב אֲמַר לֵיהּ הַב לְהוּ גְּלִימַיְיהוּ אֲמַר לֵיהּ דִּינָא הָכִי אֲמַר לֵיהּ אִין לְמַעַן תֵּלֵךְ בְּדֶרֶךְ טוֹבִים יְהַיב לְהוּ גְּלִימַיְיהוּ אֲמַרוּ לֵיהּ עַנְיֵי אֲנַן וְטָרְחִינַן כּוּלֵּהּ יוֹמָא וְכָפֵינַן וְלֵית לַן מִידֵּי אֲמַר לֵיהּ זִיל הַב אַגְרַיְיהוּ אֲמַר לֵיהּ דִּינָא הָכִי אֲמַר לֵיהּ אִין וְאׇרְחוֹת צַדִּיקִים תִּשְׁמֹר

Rav Chiya bar Yosef instituted an ordinance in Sikra: If someone uses a mover’s belt to carry a heavy item and it breaks, he must pay half the damage. Why? Such belts are used to carry loads that are too heavy for one person and yet too light for two. Thus, the damage approximates an accident while also approximating negligence. If he used a double belt, he must pay the entire amount of the damage (for he clearly recognized that the load required two men yet chose to risk doing it alone). Movers once broke a keg of wine belonging to Rabbah bar bar Chana. He seized their cloaks… “Is that the law?” “Yes,” he replied, “and guard the ways of the righteous.”

***

Why were Jerusalem and the Holy Temple destroyed? One of the reasons, say the Sages, was that they ruled justly according to the law of the Torah. But why should that be a cause for the holy city’s destruction? Surely, ruling by Torah law is admirable! Rabbi Pinchas Horowitz explains that while judges must issue just rulings according to the strict letter of the law, the judgment is only the baseline starting point for how the matter should be resolved. Having heard the judge clarify the litigants’ minimum obligation to one another, a wealthier, more powerful litigant must ask himself how he plans to go beyond the letter of the law and assist his needier legal opponent. For Avraham was given the land to bequeath to his children on condition that “he instructs them to maintain the way of Hashem to pursue righteousness and justice.” Justice alone is insufficient. For Israel to survive and thrive, we need a society built on righteousness. That means going above and beyond your formal obligations to your fellow.

One of the most common challenges to the pursuit of justice in the secular civil courts is that large corporations or wealthy individuals will almost always outlast the little guy. With extensive resources at their disposal, they will endeavor to keep the lawsuit going and going until the plaintiff is unable to afford continued legal representation, causing him to forfeit the case. That’s not justice. It’s called extortion. Instead of compensating this litigant for his claim, the big bully,wealthy defendant has left him with even less than he started out with.

The problem in this scenario is that the wealthy party never came to court with the intention of pursuing justice. He came with the goal of winning, even if that entailed a perversion of justice. The message of our Gemara is that the stronger party has a duty to extend himself for the weaker party, to the best of his reasonable abilities. Even the pursuit of justice is an insufficient aim. Jewish values demand the pursuit of righteousness. “You may technically be right that they owe you for the lost wine,” was Rav’s message to Rabbah, “but right now, they need food and clothing. You are acting improperly if you remove their cloaks and refuse to pay them for the work they did for you all day long. They were counting on those wages to put food on the table for their families.”

Always be aware of your legal obligations. But be equally mindful of your super-legal obligations. From divorce proceedings to employer/employee relations to inheritance disputes, there are various life circumstances that may bring you into legal conflict with your fellow. Resist the animalistic urge to savor the sweet taste of victory. Instead, set out with the goal of acting righteously. The Abrahamic tradition is not about obtaining a logically just outcome in court. Our patriarch endowed his offspring with the appreciation of the importance of achieving an emotionally satisfactory outcome for all parties. Your legal opponent should never have to walk away feeling you acted in a reprehensible manner, intentionally working to squeeze him dry.

The Torah declares, “Tzedek, tzedek you shall pursue, so that you live and inherit the land that Hashem your God has given you.” While the word tzedek is often translated as “justice,” it actually means “righteousness.” The doubling of the word should serve as a reminder that to endure in the land, we need both justice and righteousness. May you always strive to treat others beyond their just deserts and may Hashem shower you in turn with blessings above and beyond your just deserts!


Rabbi Dr. Daniel Friedman is the author of The Transformative Daf book series. He teaches at Touro University’s Lander Colleges and his Center for Torah Values combats Christian anti-Zionism.

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