April 17, 2024
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Shor Rhymes With Bor: Bava Kamma 2a

Two bachurim were studying the opening mishnah of Bava Kamma together in a Chofetz Chaim beit midrash. Yossi read “אַרְבָּעָה אֲבוֹת”, then stopped. “Wait. How can this Mishnah say that there are four avos, when we know that there are only three: Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov?” Shimmy thought for a moment, then said, “Well, if you just read the next word, you’ll see that it actually says אַרְבָּעָה אֲבוֹת נְזִיקִין, that there are four categories of damage.” Yossi scoffed and replied, “Don’t bring me proof from bekius (broad familiarity with text)!”

It’s sometimes worth it to slow down and carefully consider a Talmudic concept from multiple perspectives, even as we’re driven forward by the Daf Yomi schedule. Let us drill down into the אַרְבָּעָה אֲבוֹת נְזִיקִין. The Mishnah lists these as הַשּׁוֹר וְהַבּוֹר וְהַמַּבְעֶה וְהַהֶבְעֵר, the ox, the pit, the mav’eh, and the fire. Others make other lists – a brayta lists four categories related to an ox, namely הַקֶּרֶן וְהַשֵּׁן וְהָרֶגֶל, the horn, the tooth, and the foot. Further, the Mishnah’s categories aren’t entirely clear-cut. Rav explains that mav’eh is man as damager, while Shmuel explains it as tooth (3b). Similarly (4a), it’s unclear what ox refers to. Rav Yehuda explains that, for Shmuel, ox refers to goring, while Rava explains that, for Shmuel, ox refers to foot.

Rav Herschel Schachter, shlita posed the following question in shiur: The Mishnah was written / redacted by Rebbi (Yehuda HaNasi), and he presumably had a specific intent when he said mav’eh. Also, Rav and Shmuel both studied from Rebbi in Israel. When Rebbi studied this mishnah with them, did he explain it as man or as tooth? How could Rav and Shmuel argue? Rav Schachter’s suggestion was that these different damage groupings predated Rav and Shmuel. When editing the Mishnah, Rebbi chose language that was deliberately ambiguous, so as to encode multiple opinions at once. Each could look to the Mishnah and use its mnemonic.

It’s a compelling idea, though it’s also possible Rebbi inherited this mnemonic. After all, Rabbi Yochanan said (Sanhedrin 85b) סתם מתניתין ר’ מאיר סתם תוספתא ר’ נחמיה סתם ספרא רבי יהודה סתם ספרי רבי שמעון וכולהו אליבא דרבי עקיבא, that Rabbi Akiva’s students composed Tannaic works aligned with Rabbi Akiva’s views, with Rabbi Meir composing the Mishnah. Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi would then be a further redactional layer on top of that.


Explaining the Sequence

Rashi explains that the Mishnah’s sequence follows the Biblical verses. Thus, in Mishpatim, in Shemot 21, verse 28 introduces a goring ox, and verse 33 transitions us to an open pit. There’s a short discussion about thievery, but Shemot 22:4 then discusses livestock consuming a field. Finally, verse 5 discusses a fire burning a field.

Tosafot (d.h. Hashor vehabor) objects that this sequence works according to only one of the explanations of הַשּׁוֹר וְהַבּוֹר וְהַמַּבְעֶה וְהַהֶבְעֵר. However, what if mav’eh means man? What if shor means foot. They answer that still, the underlying word for ox, for a different concept (goring), and adam appears too far away to be concerned about sequence. Rabbeinu Tam explains that כִּ֤י יִגְנֹֽב־אִישׁ֙ שׁ֣וֹר appears in sequence, thus mentioning a human. Wouldn’t כִּ֤י יַבְעֶר־אִישׁ֙ שָׂדֶ֣ה would have worked just as well, in a pasuk that even uses יבער which is similar to הבער.

It seems to me, though, that Rashi’s explanation aligns with standard assigned meaning to the categories, matching the most obvious, peshat-oriented explanation, given the pasuk sequence and words employed in the verses. In Mishpatim, shor is used for a goring ox, and a pit follows. Mav’eh and hev’er are easily confused, and the Torah employs the root בער in juxtaposed verses. Since בעה is a synonym which refers more clearly to eating, they would use that root instead. And, it finishes with what everyone agrees is fire.

One reason for the sequence is that shor rhymes with bor, and mave’h has sound-similarity with hev’er. Reordering it would ruin the rhyme scheme. Further, I’d guess the mnemonic’s author primarily had Rashi’s explanation in mind. Still, he could adopt ambiguous terms to support these other existing category groupings.


Why Employ Mav’eh?

The verse for mav’eh / Tooth is potentially ambiguous. Verse four reads: כִּ֤י יַבְעֶר־אִישׁ֙ / when a man causes to be consumed, שָׂדֶ֣ה אוֹ־כֶ֔רֶם / field or vineyard, וְשִׁלַּח֙ אֶת־בְּעִירֹ֔ה / and sends forth his consumer, וּבִעֵ֖ר בִּשְׂדֵ֣ה אַחֵ֑ר / and it consumes in another (or another’s) field, מֵיטַ֥ב שָׂדֵ֛הוּ וּמֵיטַ֥ב כַּרְמ֖וֹ יְשַׁלֵּֽם / he shall pay the best of his field or the best of his vineyard.

One ambiguity is whether it is the best of the “damager” or “damagee” that is paid. The other ambiguity is whether בער as consumer refers to livestock or to fire. Verse five refers to fire, so verse four likely refers to an animal.

If כִּ֤י יַבְעֶר־אִישׁ֙ שָׂדֶ֣ה did refer to fire, why would someone burn his own field? It turns out that this is standard agricultural practice called stubble burning, to remove the stubble of the previous crop before planting. Citing Wikipedia, it’s cheaper than other removal methods, helps combat pests and weeds, and can reduce nitrogen tie-up. One of the generally harmful effects is the risk of fires spreading out of control. This could be precisely the intent of verse four. He’s already harvested, but his stubble burn accidentally spreads to his neighbor’s field. He shall then pay with his own produce, the מיטב of his own field / vineyard mentioned at the start of the verse. This isn’t precisely בִּדְמַזִּיק שָׁיְימִינַן, but is close. (We’d need to distinguish the case, which is explicitly fire, but that’s possible.) A valid alternative is that he intended to clear his field by sending his animals to graze the stubble in his own field / vineyard, and they strayed into the adjoining field. יַבְעֶר could be a root implying grazing, as the gemara explains, or it can simply mean “clear”.

Verse four states וּבִעֵ֖ר. Taking this as tooth, why not call the category mav’er with a final resh? Cassuto (Shemot 21) labels that the use of בער to mean different things in juxtaposed verses is wordplay. He suggests that the girsa (learning) of the verse before Sages of the Mishnah may have been כי יבעה with the heh, from which the category of mav’eh. He notes that in the Samaritan Pentateuch, the continuation of the verse uses the בעה root, though the two roots have overlap in meaning.

I’m unpersuaded. See the image for Benjamin Kennicott’s Vetus Testamentum, comparing our Masoretic Text (right) with the Samaritans Pentateuch (left). Asterisks indicate missing words or letters, while dashes indicate matching words. To explain why one would pay מיטב שדיהו, the Samaritans assumed בִּדְנִיזָּק שָׁיְימִינַן, that it’s the best of the damaged party’s fields. Therefore, they distinguish between part of the field being consumed, where we can assess the crop quality, and the utter destruction, where we don’t have any basis so assume it was the most valuable. This emendation is in line with the general trend of liberal emendation of the text, to making the text smoother / clearer. As Rabbi Eleazar beRabbi Yossi says about the Samaritan text, זייפתם תורתכם ולא העליתם בידכם כלום, you’ve forged your Torah to no benefit.

Even as they add a clarifying sentence using יבעה, which was contemporary rather than Biblical parlance, the Samaritans left the original כי יבער in place. I’d therefore suggest that Chazal had our Masoretic text for this verse. However, while Chazal appreciated wordplay and ambiguity in source texts, such confusion is decidedly unhelpful when discussing practical halacha and establishing distinct categories. Mav’eh sounds like hev’er so can appear with it in the mnemonic, but mav’ir and hev’er would unnecessarily confuse. They therefore selected the synonym.

Rabbi Dr. Joshua Waxman teaches computer science at Stern College for Women, and his research includes programmatically finding scholars and scholastic relationships in the Babylonian Talmud.

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