Talmud Tips

For the week ending 24 December 2016 / 24 Kislev 5777

Bava Metzia 89 - 95

by Rabbi Moshe Newman
The Color of Heaven Artscroll

The Sages say, “But we teach him (the worker who is permitted to eat from food with which he is working) to not eat more than the amount of his wages so that the ‘door should not be closed in front of him’ (so that his excessive eating should not cause him to be undesirable to hire as a worker — Rashi).”

This statement is part of a three-way dispute in the mishna regarding how much a worker may eat from the food with which he works. The gemara explains that the Tana Kama permits him to eat as much as he wants without any requirement to advise him to limit the amount for his own benefit; Rabbi Elazar Chasma permits him to eat only up to the value of his wages; and the above-quoted opinion of the Sages is that he may eat as much as he wants, but we advise him to not overdo it, and not eat more than his wages in order to remain a desirable person to hire. The halacha is in accordance with this opinion.

The right of a worker to eat from the food with which he works is taught in the Torah (Devarim 13:15): “When you enter your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat as many grapes as you desire, until you are sated, but you shall not put any into your vessel.” The gemara explains earlier (87b) that this verse is speaking about a worker who enters his employer’s vineyard to work there. And it is important to note that just as an employee has certain rights, he also has responsibilities to his employer. The Rambam codifies the responsibility of the employee toward his employer as follows: “He must not deprive the employer of the labor due him by idling a bit here and there, thereby dishonestly wasting the day, and he must also work with all his might. The saintly Yaakov said of his service to his father-in-law ‘I served your father with all my might.’ He therefore gained his reward in this world as well by being blessed with great wealth.” (Laws of Hiring 13:7)

  • Bava Metzia 92a

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’; thus it would be considered as ‘borrowing it 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 as to 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 or guards: An unpaid guard, a paid guard, a renter and a borrower. A borrower is normally responsible to pay compensation in any event that 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 above 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 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 — as 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 its reason. Nevertheless, many 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 at his service, we can assume that he expects the borrower to return the object only if it is intact when the term of borrowing has concluded, and waives any claim for payment if the object is no longer returnable for any reason. (Seforno)

Rava in our gemara teaches what appears to be an 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 normal 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, it is opined that Rava is teaching that even performing a relatively easy task as bringing a glass of water is considered “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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