Talmud Tips

For the week ending 8 June 2024 / 2 Sivan 5784

Bava Metzia 96-102

by Rabbi Moshe Newman
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Borrower’s Insurance Policy

Rava said, “A person who wants to borrow an object and be exempt from payment if something happens to it should say to the lender: ‘Please bring me some water’; in this way it would be considered as ‘borrowing the desired oject WITH the owner.’ And, if the owner is smart, he will first bring the water and only afterwards lend the object.”

Rava is giving advice to both a borrower and a lender about how they can each legally benefit in the case of a loan of an object. A borrower (sho’el) of an object is one of the four types of shomrim, guards. They are an unpaid guard, a paid guard, a renter and a borrower. A borrower is normally responsible to pay compensation in any event when he cannot return the object intact since “all the benefit is his” — i.e., he receives use of the lender’s object without paying any rent. One case in which the borrower is exempt, however, is if the object “dies while doing its job.”

Rava’s statement on our daf is another example of a borrower’s exemption from paying for the loss of the borrowed object. The Torah states (Ex. 22:14), “If the owner is with him (the borrower), he (the borrower) will not be responsible for payment (if the object ‘dies’).” A borrower’s exemption from payment, as well any other type of guard, is often referred to as “ba’alav imo” — the owner is with him, which is the wording in the verse. The Torah does not explain the reason for the guard’s exemption from payment when the owner is in the borrower’s employ or service. Of course, this mitzvah, as well as every other Torah mitzvah, should be viewed as a Divine decree that does not require our understanding of its reason. Nevertheless, commentaries offer reasons for this seemingly mysterious exemption.

One reason suggested is that if the owner of the object feels so close to the one borrowing it from him that he has placed himself in his service, it can be assumed that he expects the borrower to return the object only if it is intact when the term of borrowing has concluded, and he waives any claim for payment if the object is no longer returnable for any reason. (Seforno)

Rava also teaches what appears to be a clever application of this halacha. The borrower would be “smart” to ask for the owner to bring him some water, and while the owner is involved in bringing the water, the borrower takes the object that the owner has agreed to lend him. Since the owner was “with him” in serving him at the time when the borrowing began, the borrower would be exempt for any loss that might occur to the borrowed object. If the owner is “smart,” however, he will make sure to finish bringing the water before he gives the object to the borrower of his object, since in this manner the owner is no longer “with him” when the borrower actually becomes a borrower, and the borrower will therefore have all of the usual responsibilities of a borrower.

Although the halacha of the exemption from payment in the case of “ba’alav imo” was established and well known before Rava’s statement, Rava is teaching a novel idea. Even performing a relatively easy task, such as bringing a glass of water, is considered to be “ba’alav imo” and qualifies for the exemption of the borrower that is taught in the Torah. (Ritva)

Bava Metzia 97a

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