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Introduction to Bava Metzia

In honor of the Hadran Women of Long Island.

Bava Metzia is the second masechet of Seder Nezikin.  Its name, literally “the middle gate,” refers to its position as the second of three masechtot know as the Bava’s (“gates”), which are sometimes referred to as Nezikin as well – Bava Kamma, Bava Metzia, and Bava Batra (first gate, middle gate, and last gate). Unlike Bava Kamma and Bava Batra, Bava Metzia does not deal with torts and damages. Instead, it discusses other areas of civil law, such as found objects, exploitation, verbal mistreatment, the obligations of shomerim (custodians), sales, interest on loans, hiring practices, sharecroppers, and rentals.
As Rav Steinsaltz zt”l notes, “A basic element in Jewish civil law is the integration of compassion with justice.” In general, halacha will seek to go beyond the requirements of justice. Based on the conception of the Jewish people as one family, the laws that govern interactions with fellow Jews reflect the obligation to care for one another. The laws governing economic life are broader and are seen as part of the Sheva mitzvot Bnai Noach (the Noahide obligations) incumbent on all.
There are four basic categories of laws discussed in this masechet:
  • Transactions (a basic component of any legal system)
  • Transactions between Jews
  • Acts that are not punishable by courts but discouraged
  • Ethical behaviors
Throughout the masechet, we will deal with the issue of ownership. While generally, we would assume that ownership is equivalent to physical possession, there are times when this is not the case: for example, if an item is rented or lent, used as collateral, or lost.  We will need to determine who has halachic ownership of the item, and who bears responsibility for damage caused to it or by it. We will also learn about the transfer of ownership of movable property (metaltelin) and the determination of when that transfer occurs and the point at which it becomes irrevocable.
Muchzak
In a great deal of litigation, the concept of muchzak, presumption of possession is invoked. As we learned in Bava Kamma (46b), the principle of המוציא מחברו עליו הראיה (the burden of proof is on the one who wants to take from the other) is seen as logical and not requiring a textual basis.  However, Sumchos limits the parameters of this concept, stating that there are cases where disputed property is divided in the absence of proof of ownership. It should be noted that the use of this principle does not imply that the person owns the object – it establishes the rules of evidence, and states that whenever there is insufficient evidence to establish ownership, the person in prior possession is granted the object.
Kinyan
The transfer of ownership (kinyan) must be accomplished through a formal mode of acquisition (except for inheritances). The method varies based on the type of article being transferred and the location of the transfer. Acts of kinyan include pulling, transferring, controlling, lifting, or exchanging an article.
There are 4 stages to kinyan:
  • Agreement on a price (mental acceptance by the seller)
  • Verbal commitment
  • Transfer of money (this is not a binding act of kinyan but if either side backs out at this stage, they incur a severe curse)
  • The physical act of kinyan, which depends on the item being acquired.

 

Mode of kinyan                                    Effective for
  1. Lifting הגבהה                                       All moveable property מטלטלין
  2. Pulling משיכה                                      Moveable property too heavy to be lifted
  3. Handing over מסירה                          Moveable property that is too heavy to be lifted or pulled                                                                             Only effective in public domain (reshut harabim) or a                                                                                    private domain that does not belong to the seller or buyer
  4. Leading הנהגה                                      For large animals; purchaser leads or drives the animal a                                                                              short distance
  5. Exchange חליפין                                  When bartering – once one party takes ownership through one                                                                     of the methods of kinyan, the other party automatically takes                                                                     ownership of the second item.
  6. Courtyard חצר                                     A person’s courtyard acquires unowned property that is found in                                                                it without the need for an act of kinyan. A guarded (fenced and                                                                   locked) courtyard has greater power to acquire than an                                                                                unguarded one.
  7. Hand יד                                               One’s possession that is considered his legal extension or one                                                                      acting on another’s behalf.
  8. Money כסף                                           For land/real estate, purchase of slaves (both Hebrew and                                                                            Canaanite), to sell an item to the Temple, for betrothal of a                                                                          woman, to redeem maser sheini (second tithe) produce, to                                                                          redeem consecrated items and to redeem a firstborn son.                                                                              NOT VALID for moveable property – even after the seller is                                                                        paid, there must be an act of kinyan for the new owner to                                                                            assume ownership.  With the exception of maser sheini, any                                                                        article of value can serve as a substitute for money.
  9. “Kerchief” סודר (אגב)                          An extension of חליפין. The symbolic transfer of a handkerchief                                                                    or some other small article formalizes the agreement between                                                                    the two parties. Generally effected by the seller taking the                                                                            buyer’s handkerchief in his hand, lifting it up and then                                                                                  returning it to him.

Structure and Content

 

Chapter 1:  2a-21a                         שנים אוחזין                                     Determining ownership of an item that is                                                                                                                    claimed by two individuals.

Chapter 2: 21a-33b                        אלו מציאות                                      Laws of returning lost items
Loading and unloading animals
Chapter 3: 33b-44a                        המפקיד                                            Safeguarding a deposit
                                                                                                                  Responsibilities of bailees

                                                                                                                  Misappropriation

Chapter 4: 44a-60b                         הזהב                                              Definition of money

                                                                                                                  Exploitative financial transactions

Chapter 5: 60b-75b                         איזהו נשך                                        Interest

Chapter 6: 75b-83a                         השוכר את האומנין                            Hiring craftsmen

                                                                                                                  Craftsmen’s liability for damages

Chapter 7: 83a-94a                         השוכר את הפועלים                           Hiring workers

Chapter 8: 94a-103a                       השואל                                             Bailees
                                                                                                                   Responsibilities of a borrower

                                                                                                                   Renting houses

Chapter 9: 103a-116a                        המקבל                                          Sharecroppers and contractors working a                                                                                                                     field
                                                                                                                   The prohibition of withholding wages

                                                                                                                   The prohibition of destroying collateral

Chapter 10: 116b-119a                       הבית והעלייה                                  Shared ownership of a building or land

Gitta Jaroslawicz-Neufeld

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