Every week for the last several years I have studied Talmud with the same havruta, or study partner. The purpose of this learning is strictly lishmah, for its own sake. Our learning takes us in many directions, and we have worked our way in and around several different tractates of the Talmud–Sanhedrin, Bava Kamma, and for the last year or so Bava Metziah, which deals with issues pertaining to movable property.
Even though our study is strictly lishmah, I have often wanted to write down the notes from our conversations, because frequently we achieve some very good insights, and, as readers of my blog know, I find I do a lot of my own thinking and clarification in the process of writing. So I’m going to give a shot of summarizing a bit of our discussion, and we’ll see how it goes. Please let me know what you think.
We are currently at Bava Metziah 38a, in the middle of the third chapter, which generally deals with cases about depositing items with another person. The Mishnah on this page details a disagreement between the Tanna Kamma (first teacher) and Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel: “One who deposits fruit with another , and the fruit begins to go bad: he should not touch it. Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel says: He should sell it before a beit din (rabbinic court), because it is like returning a lost object to its owners.” What is the issue in the Mishnah? Rabban Shimon’s statement seems to make perfect sense: If you are watching your neighbor’s fruit, and you see it’s going bad, you should sell it and then return the money to your neighbor. Why wouldn’t you do this?
The Gemara provides two rationales: Rav Kahana explains that “A person prefers his own [produce] to nine times the produce of his neighbor.” Rav Nachman bar Yitzhak says: We are worried that perhaps the owner had designated the produce he gave to his friend as terumah and maaser, tithed food, which are only allowed to be eaten by Kohanim and Levites, respectively. If so, then the person who buys the produce from its guardian will wind up eating prohibited food (unless, of course, he is a Kohen or Levi).
The Gemara proceeds to work out these two explanations and unpack the differences between them. You can look at that discussion for yourself. For my purposes right now, I want to dwell on the difference between Rav Kahana and Rav Nachman bar Yitzhak. One of the things that seems to be at stake between the two of them centers around our relationship to the product of our labor. Rav Kahana appeals to what he sees as a general principle of human nature, namely that people prefer what they themselves have had a hand in harvesting or creating. While one tomato seems interchangable with another when you’re in the grocery store, the tomatoes you eat from the plant in your backyard are different, better–not necessarily because they taste better, but because they’re yours. That’s his thinking, at least (and, from personal experience, I’d agree with that, at least as it applies to my own tastes).
For Rav Nachman bar Yitzhak, the question is one of responsibility: The guardian of the produce might inadvertantly cause the buyer of the produce to sin by eating prohibited food. We are accountable to one another, and therefore we have to be on guard against such a possibility. (One wonders as one reads the Gemara, why not simply ask the owner if he had designated the produce as terumah or ma’aser? This is part of the solution that is brought down as law in the Shulchan Arukh.) Rav Nachman wants to be on guard in order to protect an unwitting consumer.
In a non-agrarian, capitalist economy, much of this might strike us as foreign. We are not terribly familiar with the rules of tithing, and most of us don’t grow our own food. For us, an apple or an orange or an ear of corn are simply things we exchange for cash and then consume. But for Rav Kahana, our food is something with which we have a relationship–not even symbolically, but essentially. The food doesn’t even need to point to something else; it, in and of itself, is something with which we have a relationship, and therefore we prefer our own food to that of someone else.
Similarly, for Rav Nachman, food is not something that can easily be disposed of and converted into capital. There are rules about food, rules that have the effect of checking our ability to immediately exchange our produce for cash. Those rules remind us of social obligations to one another (remember that the Levites were grouped by the Torah with other poor people: widows, orphans, and strangers) and to God: “For the Earth is mine, and you are strangers and sojourners with Me.” (Lev. 25:23)
Yet capital is not a bad thing either. Rabban Shimon’s original statement in the Mishnah is about social obligations as well: We have a responsibility to our neighbors to make sure they don’t needlessly lose money, just as we have an obligation to return their lost property. And those responsibilities can best be discharged by converting the rotting produce into cash, which, unlike the rotting fruit, can be returned to the owners.
The sugya (Talmudic discussion) is therefore playing with several factors: human nature, responsibilities to the law and to our neighbors, and the network of relationships that exist between individuals, the earth, and God. It reminds us both of some of the problems inherent in capitalism and some of its virtues. All of it, fundamentally, is rooted in the idea that we have a relationship with the earth and its produce–something we have sadly lost and could all stand to reclaim.