Talmud Tips

For the week ending 6 January 2024 / 25 Tevet 5784

Bava Kama 65-71

by Rabbi Moshe Newman
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A Sin Takes Root

Rabbi Akiva said, “Why does the Torah state that if a person (steals an ox or sheep and then) slaughters it or sells it he must pays the owner four or five times its value? Because the person became ‘rooted’ in sin.”

As Rava said, “Because he ‘repeated’ the sin.”

These two statements are taught with regards to the question of whether a thief becomes the owner of a stolen item if the victim gives up hope (yi’ush) of recovering it. The gemara records the both Rabbi Akiva’s and Rava’s insights into the reason for the special penalty paid for stealing and then slaughtering or selling an ox or sheep, as taught in the Torah (Ex. 21:37) and the Mishna (62b).

Rabbi Akiva’s reason is: “Because the thief became rooted in sin.” The gemara understands this to mean that his subsequent act of slaughter or sale “took roots, i.e. he ‘became strengthened in sin’ since his action accomplished something” (Rashi).

The gemara questions this reason: If the penalty is for what the thief did before yi’ush, how can Rabbi Akiva say that his action “did something”? If he sold it before yi’ush, the sale is not valid! Rather, the gemara suggests, he is penalized for his action after yi’ush. But, if this is the case, asks the gemara, he should not have to pay any penalty, since he is slaughtering or selling his own item! Therefore, the gemara offers the reason that Rava states: “Because he repeated the sin.” And the penalty is imposed only when the thief repeated the sin before yi’ush, while the item still belonged to the victim of the theft.

But what about Rabbi Akiva’s reason, and how we originally understood it? Even after this apparent conclusion, it is still possible to accept the reason for the penalty as being that the thief’s second action “took root” and accomplished a real change. This can be so if Rabbi Akiva holds that yi’ush by itself does notresult in a valid sale by the thief, but rather that the combination of yi’ush and change of domain (to the seller) effects a valid sale, just as slaughter effects a true change to the item. In both cases his “deed was effective.”

Bava Kama 67b, 68a

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