February 24, 2024
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We Learn Them From Pit: Bava Kamma 31b

A brayta on Bava Kamma 31a discusses a case of potters or glassware merchants walking behind one another. The first one stumbled and fell, the second stumbled over the first and the third stumbled over the second. The first potter is liable for the damages to the second, and the second to the third. However, if the second and third both fell because of the first, only the first is liable.

Rava elaborates on the brayta’s meaning, and a reformulation of Rava’s intent is: The first potter is liable for the damages to the second’s body or property, while the second is only liable for damages to the third’s body, not to his property. The reasoning is that the second person is effectively a Pit, and a Pit doesn’t pay for damage to vessels. The Gemara then objects that this works according to Shmuel, who holds that all stumbling blocks are learned from Pit. However, Rav restricts this to items declared hefker, ownerless, (but otherwise they would be Ox, for which he would be liable even for vessels). The Gemara then reverts to its first interpretation of Rava’s interpretation, one defended by named Amoraim rather than presented anonymously.

 

Pivotal Sugya

The Rav vs. Shmuel dispute appears in Bava Kamma 28. In the Mishna, Reuven’s jug broke in the public domain. If Shimon slipped on the water and was injured, or was injured by the broken shards, the jug’s owner is liable. Rabbi Yehuda says Reuven is only liable if he acted with intent.

Rav Yehuda relates: Rav explained the Mishna’s case as Shimon’s clothing getting soiled by the dirty water, but if Shimon was himself injured, Reuven is exempt, since the ground caused the injury, not the water that he slipped on. (As Douglas Adams said, “It’s not the fall that kills you; it’s the sudden stop at the end.”) When he related Rav’s explanation before Shmuel, the latter reacted: Let’s see—leaving his stone, knife or burden (in the public domain) are learned from Pit. Therefore, I’d apply to each of them (the interpreted restriction of Shemot 21:33 of if what fell into it was an) “Ox” and not a man, a “Donkey” and not vessels. But that Pit exclusion of Man is where he was killed, but for damage, the pit owner is liable for man but not vessels. (Therefore, in the Mishna, the injury must be to the person, not the damage to his clothing.)

The Talmudic Narrator then proffers an explanation on Rav’s behalf, namely that it’s only Pit for ownerless vessels, such as where he declared the jug hefker. Otherwise, his property did damage, for which he’s liable. (See 3b, it’s a subcategory of Ox.)

The Gemara continues with the objection of Rav Oshaya, a third-generation Amora (who was a primary student of Rav Yehuda, and Rabba’s brother), citing a brayta discussing אַבְנוֹ וְסַכִּינוֹ וּמַשָּׂאו as Pit damages. Its beginning, when reworded, challenges the explanation proffered for Rav, and its ending challenges Shmuel. That ending is that if someone dropped and shattered his flask on a stone left in the public domain, the stone’s owner would be liable. Thus, even learning from Pit (where in certain cases he’s exempt for vessels), this case of soiled/damaged clothing would be similar, so Rav’s explanation is in good standing. The Talmudic Narrator then offers explanations for Rav and Shmuel.

That sugya merits careful study inside, in its final surface form. I won’t elaborate here for space considerations, but I’d separate named Amoraic statements from anonymous statements to form a smaller proto-sugya. We have Rav’s explanation, Shmuel’s attack based on Pit and Rav Oshaya’s attack on Shmuel which would legitimize Rav’s explanation within Pit.

The rest is Stammaic theorization, which we might question. Shmuel says מִכְּדֵי אַבְנוֹ וְסַכִּינוֹ וּמַשָּׂאוֹ – מִבּוֹרוֹ לָמַדְנוּ, וְכוּלָּן אֲנִי קוֹרֵא בָּהֶן: ״שׁוֹר״ – וְלֹא אָדָם, ״חֲמוֹר״ – וְלֹא כֵּלִים. That suggests to me an understanding shared by Rav and Shmuel (לָמַדְנוּ) that it’s derived from Pit—an understanding we indeed witness in Rav Oshaya’s citation of the brayta. Further, the brayta’s language of שֶׁהִנִּיחָן בִּרְשׁוּת הָרַבִּים implies setting it down there and retaining ownership, rather than abandoning it there. Finally, in the Mishna, when Reuven’s jug shatters in the public domain and spills water, would Reuven really want to retain ownership of the broken jug and of the spilled water, which is difficult to collect? Rather, we can rescue Rav based on Rav Oshaya’s brayta, which includes certain Pit damages to vessels. Rav, like Shmuel, needn’t distinguish between owned and abandoned items.

 

Works for Shmuel

The pivotal sugya, as the Talmudic Narrator reinterprets it, is used by the Talmudic Narrator in several other sugyot. Our sugya (Bava Kamma 31b) rejected a proposed reinterpretation of Rava’s halachic statement because it only worked according to Shmuel. Rav restricts Pit to abandoned items. Yet, the abandonment distinction was not explicitly voiced by Rav, only proffered on his behalf.

In Bava Kamma 48a, Rava says that if Reuven brought his ox into Shimon’s courtyard without permission, and it damaged Shimon or Shimon stumbled on it and was injured by it, Reuven is liable. If the ox crouched (ravatz) and did damage, Reuven is exempt. Rava’s student, Rav Pappa, explained “crouched” (not as the Mishnah’s לִרְבּוֹץ, crouching to damage as a subcategory of Horn but) as that it dropped feces which subsequently damaged Shimon’s clothing. That is, the feces are a subcategory of Pit, for which vessel damage is exempt. Talmudic Narrator asks: This works for Shmuel, but what about Rav? He explains that feces are presumably abandoned.

Rav Pappa stated that some subcategories (toladot) are unlike their primary damage category. In Bava Kamma 3a, the Talmudic Narrator suggests the toladah is אַבְנוֹ וְסַכִּינוֹ וּמַשָּׂאו. However, for Shmuel, it’s just like Pit; for Rav, it’s just like Ox. On 3b, the Talmudic Narrator suggests phlegm/spittle, but if it damages after it rests, it’s just like Pit, for both Rav and Shmuel, presumably because one doesn’t retain ownership of his phlegm.

Bava Kamma 48b analyzes the Mishnah that if Reuven brought his ox into Shimon’s courtyard without permission, and the ox fell into Shimon’s pit and contaminated the water, Reuven is liable. Rava comments that this is only if the ox contaminated the water at the time of the fall, but if afterwards, Reuven is exempt. The Talmudic Narrator explains: The reason is that the ox attains the status of Pit and the water like vessels, for which Pit is exempt. The Narrator objects: this works for Shmuel, but what about Rav? (The presumption is that Reuven hasn’t renounced ownership of the ox.) Therefore, the Talmudic Narrator emends Rava’s statement.

The Rashba wonders here why ask whether Rava works with Rav’s position. After all, we rule like Shmuel! (Usually, in monetary matters, we rule like Shmuel over Rav. Also, on 28b, Shmuel raised a strong objection to Rav’s position and Rav didn’t respond.) Rashba explains that even so, we want to know whether Rava expressed his idea only according to Shmuel, or according to everyone.

I’d note that in each case, it’s the Talmudic Narrator rather than a named Amora asking this, based on the position the Talmudic Narrator attributed to Rav. Maybe if Rav meant something else (that there’s Pit with some responsibility for vessels), the question doesn’t arise. Also, to jump onto Rashba’s question, I wonder whether Rava and his student Rav Pappa would work within Shmuel regardless. After all, Shmuel founded Nehardea and his student Rav Nachman (bar Yaakov) took over leadership. Rav Nachman was Rava’s primary teacher.


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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