Talmud Tips

For the week ending 24 February 2024 / 15 Adar Alef 5784

Bava Kama 114-119

by Rabbi Moshe Newman
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On a High Note

“One should conclude Torah study with a ‘good word’.”

The concluding portion of Bava Kama teaches how to determine when taking another’s property is considered theft and when it is not. The underlying principle is that when the owner is makpid about his property (meaning that he is not agreeable to another person taking his property), it is considered theft if another person in fact takes it.

An example cited in a beraita is the case of unripe grains that were fit only for animals to eat. Rabbi Yehuda states that it is not theft if another person takes some of it unless the owner is makpid and not agreeable to any taking of it. Ravina adds that the city of Masa Machsia was a place where the owners were not agreeable to taking their animal grain without permission. Rashi explains that they were makpid regarding others taking their animal grain because Masa Machsia was a place of many animals, and much of this grain was needed by the animal owners since their animals required a “good pasture.”

The Maharsha points out that it would have been sufficient for Rashi to have written the word “pasture” without the word “good.” He suggests that Rashi intentionally included the word “good” (tov) as the final word of his commentary on Bava Kama in order to end on a “good note” — after nearly completing study of a Tractate that is virtually entirely dedicated to the negative topic of damages. Therefore, instead of ending his commentary with the word “pasture” (mireh), which in Hebrew would be stating the word “bad” (ra’ah) at the end, Rashi ends with the word “good,” a word that is correct in the context of the case in the gemara, and serves to “conclude Torah study with a 'good word'.” In this case, the “good word” is literally the word “good,” whereas in other cases it may be an optimistic or consoling message. Other Tractates actually conclude with a positive message, but since Bava Kama is, in a sense, the first of the trilogy of Bava Kama, Bava Metzia, and Bava Batra, the Maharsha suggests that the gemara in Bava Kama does not conclude on a clear “good note” message, as is the case with other Tractates.

Although the gemara does not openly conclude on a good note or a good message, the Maharsha suggests that it actually concludes in a way that hints to a positive ending. He notes that the final four letters of the Tractate are yod, heh, vav and alef, which hint to three different names of our merciful Creator, Who is with us in exile. In addition, these four letters are considered “partner letters” for the Hebrew letters that spell “Hatov — the Good.” (We should add that the source for concluding with a good word seems to be the halacha to make sure to begin and end a section of a public Torah reading on a positive note, as is taught in Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 138. Commentaries extend this idea beyond the public Torah reading to include all Torah study. I have even heard of a great Rabbi who would occasionally add some words that were not seemingly connected to Torah at the end of a lecture in order to fulfill this principle of concluding Torah study with a “good word.”

Bava Kama 119b

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