An Introduction to Bava Batra

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

The three Bavas - Kamma, Metzia and Batra - are the bread and butter of Talmudic learning. If I, like many others, began my formal learning of Talmud in elementary school with Eilu Metziot, the second chapter of Bava Metzia (see here), my introduction to Talmud in high school was via  Chezkat Habatim, the third chapter of Bava Batra, detailing the law of presumptive ownership. And coincidentally, though not surprisingly, when I arrived in Israel, the yeshiva was studying Keitzad Haregel, the second chapter of Bava Kamma, detailing the laws of damages caused by a walking (or shall we say, stomping) animal.

The focus on seder Nezikin in general and the Bavas in particular, is not only because we spend so many of our waking hours in commercial settings[1]. Nor is it because there are more mitzvoth relating to the earning and spending of money than any other area of the Torah. Rather, it is most likely a result of the last Mishna of Bava Batra (10:8), which teaches that “one who wants to become wise should study monetary law, for there is no field in the Torah greater than these, for they are like an endless flowing stream.” Unlike other areas of Jewish law, which focus on explicating the meaning of the Biblical verse, monetary law is predicated on penetrating logical analysis and argumentation, fine distinctions, comparing and contrasting similar cases. It requires a thorough understanding of human psychology, social reality and commercial practice. It is the application of Torah to the real world at its best. Shades of grey abound and as the Ramban explains in his introduction to his commentary on the commentary of the Rif  “anybody who studiesTalmud know that regarding the debates of our commentaries there are no absolute proofs and no irrefutable objections because in this area of wisdom there are no clear demonstrations as there are regarding mathematics.[2]

While this applies to all aspects of Torah, it is especially true in the realm of monetary law where much of it has no textual source. The three Bavas used to be one very long masechet but over time it was divided into an “opening, middle and concluding gate” or in Aramaic, Bava Kamma, Metzia and Batra. These masechtot are the gateways to learning and wisdom.

Bava Kamma deals primarily with torts and damages, Bava Metzia focuses on commercial practices and Bava Batra on property rights. “Good fences make good neighbours.” The masechet opens with the teaching that one can force his neighbour to pay for half the costs of a fence, actually a wall, between their properties. Such a scenario sure beats the opening of Bava Metzia, where two people are holding onto an object, each claiming it is completely theirs. It is also a more refined opening than that of Bava Kamma which begins by describing the various categories of damages one can inflict on another.

After detailing the when, where and how the fence is to be built and paid for, the chapter continues by detailing the financial obligations placed on the resident of a courtyard or city. It is here that the Gemara discusses tax law, an area always bound to cause great debate.

The second chapter deals with zoning laws, detailing what activities a member of a courtyard may or may not do, and the placement of various industries in relation to the city as a whole. Recognizing that winds generally blow eastward (as anyone flying back and forth to Israel can attest) the Mishna insists that, given its unpleasant smell, a tannery can only be opened to the east of the city. Rabbi Akiva disagrees to a point, forbidding only it being situated to the west of the city where the smells would linger the most.

The third chapter opens with the teaching that one who occupies property for three years can claim it as their own, even without proof of purchase, and even when the original owner claims that he never sold it. Our Sages argued that one does not let someone take over their field for three years without registering a protest. Even one who is travelling, very far from home makes it his business to ensure squatters do not occupy his home.  

The fourth chapter discusses what is and is not included in the sale of a home, a courtyard or a bathhouse. While disputes are always possible, in Talmudic times delineating what was included and what was not was more crucial. Does a home include the well supplying water or the oven that was sitting in the courtyard? What about the roof and the movable doors?

Chapters five, six and seven continue on the same theme, detailing what is included in the sale of such items as a boat (the ancient equivalent to a “car”), field, cemetery plot and the like.

The eighth and ninth chapters detail the laws of inheritance, one of the few areas of the masechet for which there is Biblical support though as is almost always the case the Torah itself provides only an outline with the details to be derived and deduced by the Sages.

The tenth and final chapter deals with requirements of shtarot, legal documents.: who can sign, where and what language they may sign, the difference between oral and written agreements and the like.

The last few Mishnayot deal with the laws of an arev, one who co-signs to a loan. This is a most beautiful ending to the masechet which began with neighbours building walls between them. An arev is one who tears down the walls between people, willing to put his money on the line so that his friend may qualify for a loan.


[1] Though this would be a good reason to learn the halachot relating to commercial dealings, something that is rarely done.


[2] This fascinating statement is actuality one demonstrating the great humility of the Ramban. He named his commentary Milchamat Hashem, The Wars of G-d, and the commentary is dedicated to defending the Rif, Rabbbi Yitzchak Alfasi against the critiques of the Ba’al Hamaor, Rav Zerachiah Halevi of Provence. The Ramban readily admits that his arguments are not necessarily conclusive and that the opposing viewpoint is to be affirmed. This is an especially important point to keep in mind - especially when one is fighting the Wars of G-d, and something we would do well to remember today.