Talmud Tips

For the week ending 13 August 2016 / 9 Av 5776

Bava Kama 72 - 78

by Rabbi Moshe Newman
The Color of Heaven Artscroll

Rav Nachman said to the Sage Rava: “Because I did not eat the meat of an ox.”

The Torah states that if a person steals an ox or a sheep, and then slaughters it or sells it, he must pay the original owner five oxen (for the one ox), and four sheep in the case of a sheep. Rava posed the following question to Rav Nachman: If a person steals an ox that belongs to two partners, and slaughters it, and then admits what he had done to one of the two partners, is he indeed required to pay “five half oxen to the other partner? (He is exempt from paying the penalty of “five for one” to the partner to whom he admitted his misdeed, in accordance with the rule that “One who admits to a matter which involves a penalty (kenas) is exempt from the additional penalty payment” — Rashi). Rava’s question requires a clear and precise understanding of the phrase “five oxen” in the verse. Does it mean “five oxen but not five half oxen”, or does it mean even “five half oxen”? Rav Nachman initially answered: “The Torah says ‘five oxen’ but not ‘five half oxen’.” Rava challenged this ruling from a mishna (70a), and there is a back-and-forth discussion about this ruling, resulting in neither refutation nor proof.

The next morning Rav Nachman told Rava the opposite legal ruling: “The Torah says ‘five oxen’ and it means ‘even five half oxen’, and I didn’t say this answer yesterday evening because I had not yet eaten the meat of an ox.”

Rashi explains that Rav Nachman’s words are not literal. Rather he is explaining that his previous answer was incorrect because he had not been precise enough in understanding the reason (ta’am) of the matter. His excuse of not having eaten the “meat of an ox” seems to be a somewhat humorous way of expressing why he ruled as he did yesterday. I have heard it explained that Rashi uses the word ta’am — i.e., taste or reason — with great precision. Rav Nachman was saying that he ruled incorrectly at first because he had not delved into the matter deeply enough to fully understand and taste the underlying reason for this penalty. After additional and sufficient toil in his Torah study, he “dug his teeth into the meat of the matter” and arrived at a better understanding, which led to his reversing his ruling.

Tosefot makes an interesting comment regarding Rav Nachman’s explanation for the incorrect ruling he issued on the previous day. When Rav Nachman claimed that he had not eaten the meat of an ox, he meant it literally, since he was fasting the previous day and refrained from eating all food. This statement of Tosefot seems, at first glance, to be something akin to prophecy — how could Tosefot know this, and why does Tosefot say this? Perhaps Rav Nachman was not fasting, and he attributed his earlier ruling to not having eaten a steak?

Although the ba’alei Tosefot certainly had “ruach hakodesh” (a “spiritual" path to knowledge similar to prophecy), I believe that the Tosefists made a very “down to earth” observation, so to speak. Rav Nachman attributed his lack of greater understanding on the previous day to his not having eaten the meat of on ox, and the next day changed his ruling due to greater understanding. What changed in the meantime? Last night he had eaten the meat of an ox. So, if he realized that eating this meat would help him learn Torah better and understand it more profoundly, why didn’t he eat meat on the previous day? Didn’t he certainly have an obligation to eat whatever was necessary in order to think properly and toil in the depths of his Torah study in order to arrive at the correct conclusion? The only explanation for his not having eaten meat yesterday must be that he was fasting, as Tosefot deduces.

  • Bava Kama 72a

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