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When You Buy a Cow (or a Boat) What Do You Get From the Seller? When Is It Yours? And What Really Is a Cow Anyway?

This week’s ‘Daf Yomi’ Talmud study goes straight to the essence of the matter. Plus, ‘fish tales’ and 750-mile-high waves.

Adam Kirsch
April 25, 2017
Inset image: Flickr/Internet Archive Book Images
Inset image: Flickr/Internet Archive Book Images
Inset image: Flickr/Internet Archive Book Images
Inset image: Flickr/Internet Archive Book Images

Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

Before Pesach, Daf Yomi readers were exploring the rules governing real estate transactions in Tractate Bava Batra, such as what exactly is included when you purchase a field or a house. During the holiday, Daf Yomi readers began Chapter Five, which applies the same sort of inquiry to various types of movable property. To avoid the kind of ambiguity that can give rise to litigation, the rabbis dictate exactly what the buyer is entitled to receive when he purchases items ranging from a ship to the head of a cow. They go on to explain what action the buyer must take to officially gain possession of the item—a process known as “pulling.”

Take a ship, the example which begins the chapter in Bava Batra 73a. “One who sells a ship has sold the toren, and the nes, and the ogin,” says the mishna; and as often happens, the Gemara inquires into the meaning of these unfamiliar Hebrew words. Using Biblical citations, the rabbis explain that the toren is the mast, the nes is the sail, and the ogin is the anchor. These are all essential parts of the ship, so they naturally go along with the ship itself. However, the seller is not required to include “the slaves who serve as oarsmen, nor the packing bags used for transporting goods.” This matter-of-fact reference to slaves as purchasable items is a reminder that, in the Talmudic world of the Roman and Persian empires, slavery was omnipresent. To ensure that the sale of a ship also included the men needed to row it, the seller would have to promise the buyer the ship “and all that it contains.”

Under Jewish law, however, a transaction is not complete until the purchaser demonstrates physical possession of the item, by “pulling” it. In the case of livestock, this is simple enough: “How is an animal acquired through pulling? If he calls it and it comes, or if he hits with a stick and it runs before him, once it lifts a foreleg and a hindleg he has acquired it,” says the Gemara in Bava Batra 75b. Alternatively, according to Rabbi Achai, the animal must “walk its full length” in order to be considered pulled.

The same principle is applied to a movable object like a ship: It must be moved, presumably by rowing or sailing, by the new owner. Here, too, there is disagreement about just how far it must move: Rav says “any amount,” while Shmuel, following Rabbi Achai, says “he does not acquire it until he pulls the entire ship,” that is, so that the end of the ship has reached the place where its front used to be. Later commentators add that this pulling must take place on the water, not on dry land, because the sea is where a ship typically sails.

The rabbis go on to ask the same questions about other types of transactions. In the sale of a wagon, the mules are not included; in the sale of a yoke, the oxen are not included. Rabbi Yehuda introduces a useful concept when he says that “the money indicates”: The price is a guide to what the parties mean to include. Thus “if the buyer said to the seller: Sell me your yoke for 200 dinars, since it is a known matter that a yoke is not sold for 200 dinars,” the offer is clearly meant to include the oxen as well. (The misunderstanding could easily arise, the Gemara notes, in places where a team of oxen are colloquially referred to as a yoke.)

However, the rabbis reject the principle of “the money indicates.” Perhaps they foresaw that requiring judges to determine the monetary value of different types of items was an invitation to legal chaos. Instead, the Gemara explains, in the case of a dispute over a yoke sold for 200 dinars, the rabbis simply nullify the transaction, on the grounds of “exploitation.” As we saw extensively in Tractate Bava Metzia, a sale in which the price of an item exceeds or falls short of the usual market price by more than one-sixth is considered exploitative, and therefore illegal. In this case, 200 dinars is so far out of line with the value of a yoke, not including the oxen, that it is prima facie invalid.

However, the Gemara raises a further complication. The law of exploitation only holds in a case where “one could be mistaken” about the correct price. But when the price is so wildly out of line with the actual value that no mistake is possible, then the extra money is considered a gift from the buyer to the seller. Thus, if you agreed to buy my used car for $1 million, you couldn’t sue me and claim that you were deceived about the actual value of the car, since everyone knows a used car isn’t worth that much. The law considers that you must have intended to overpay, out of generosity or from some other motive.

As for the sale of a slaughtered animal, in Bava Batra 83b the mishna says that “one who sells the head of a large domesticated animal has not sold the forelegs.” Because each part of a sheep or a cow is of significant value, you can’t assume that you buy them all at once; the seller presumably wants to sell them separately, to maximize his profit. The chapter goes on to consider issues relating to the measurement of produce, and what to do if the value of a commodity changes between the signing of the contract and the delivery of the item.

As sometimes happens in the Talmud, however, this fairly dry and technical material is unexpectedly interrupted, in Bava Batra 73a, by an outpouring of fantastical aggadah, or lore. After the mishna’s mention of the rules for selling ships, the Gemara starts to discuss tales involving ships and sailors—and as the English expression “fish story” suggests, seafarers’ tales are apt to be exaggerated. Indeed, the Talmud’s fish story may be the most unbelievable one ever told. Rabba bar bar Chana tells of a fish so big that when the waves threw it onto the land, “sixty districts were destroyed.” The parts of the city that weren’t crushed, however, ended up benefiting: “60 districts ate from it and another 60 districts salted its meat to preserve it. And they filled from one of its eyeballs 300 flasks of oil.” And that’s not all: The fish’s bones were so big that they were used to rebuild the houses flattened by the fish in the first place.

In keeping with this theme, Rabba tells of sailors who encountered waves 300 parasangs high. Since a parasang is roughly 2.5 miles, this means they were about 750 miles tall—enough that when the ship crested a wave, “we saw the resting place of a small star. … And if it had lifted us higher, we would have been scorched by the heat.” Rabba adds that he once saw an antelope that was only one day old, but already as large as Mount Tabor—“four parasangs, and the length of its neck was three parasangs.” It was so big that when it defecated, it “dammed up the Jordan” river. Rabba bar bar Chana adds that he once saw a frog as big as 60 houses, and a witness backs him up: “Rav Pappa bar Shmuel said: If I had not been there, I would not believe it.”

There is nothing explicitly religious about these tall tales, and one wonders if the rabbis genuinely believed them, or simply enjoyed telling them. Soon, however, the penchant for exaggeration connects with more serious matters, like the Bible and the belief in heaven. Rabba bar bar Chana, once again in the forefront, says that he once saw a flock of geese “whose wings were sloping because they were so fat, and streams of oil flowed beneath them. I said to them: Shall we have a portion of you in the World to Come? One raised a wing and one raised a leg,” which is evidently the goose equivalent of nodding yes. The World to Come, in this vision, is like the medieval Christian folk belief in Cockaigne, a land where the pigs run around pre-roasted and the houses are made of sugar.

The chief dish in this heavenly feast will be the flesh of Leviathan, the biblical sea creature around which Judaism developed a whole mythology. Rav explains that when God first created the earth, He made a male and a female leviathan, but He realized that if beasts of such enormous size reproduced, “they would have destroyed the entire world.” To prevent this, “He castrated the male and killed the female, and salted her for the righteous in the future.” This kind of folk belief is very different from what most American Jews learn as Judaism today. In our reformed, rationalized faith, there is no room for heavenly banquets on giant sea-monsters. And the proximity of these ostensibly religious tales to outright absurdities, like the one about the 750-mile-high wave, does not exactly inspire confidence. One of the most fascinating things about the Talmud, I have found in my Daf Yomi reading, is the way the same rabbinic minds can embrace both the most rigorous logic and the most florid fantasies.


Adam Kirsch embarked on the Daf Yomi cycle of daily Talmud study in August 2012. To catch up on Tablet’s complete archive of more than four years of columns, click here.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.