Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Ownership disputes and oaths in the Talmud

THIS WEEK'S DAF YOMI COLUMN BY ADAM KIRSCH IN TABLET: I Swear. A simple dispute over ownership leads the Talmudic sages into a debate, in this week’s ‘Daf Yomi,’ about the value of a spiritual oath versus secular claims of honesty.
The first three tractates of Seder Nezikin were once a single long tractate, whose title was also Nezikin, that is, “damages.” At some point, however, this was divided into three sections, each of which is referred to as a Bava, or “gate.” Last week, Daf Yomi readers finished Bava Kamma, “the first gate,” and began Bava Metzia, “the middle gate.” (Still to come is Bava Batra, “the last gate.”) The subject continues to be the laws of damages, but in this new tractate, the emphasis has shifted. Bava Kamma dealt primarily with various kinds of injuries—inflicted deliberately or accidentally, by people or animals, taking the form of bodily harm or theft.

In the first pages of Bava Metzia, by contrast, the focus is on disputes over ownership. What happens when two litigants lay claim to the same item—in the mishna’s example, a garment? “If two people come to court holding a garment, and this one says: I found it, and that one says: I found it,” how is the court to decide between their claims? Because the item was found, not purchased or loaned or given, none of the usual kinds of evidence used in property disputes is available here. It’s not possible for either party to produce a receipt or a witness proving that he is the true owner. The court has nothing to go on but the fact that both parties are physically holding on to the garment.

Earlier Daf Yomi columns are noted here and links.