Bava Batra 30: Don't Start With Me

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

If you are going to pick a fight with someone, it’s best to know who your adversary is. There are certain people with whom it just doesn’t pay to start up. “A man [Reuven] said to his friend [Shimon]: What are you doing in my field? He said to him, I purchased it from ploni [Levi] and have been here for the [three] years of a chazakah” (Bava Batra 30b). As we discussed in our last post, a claim that one has purchased a field coupled with evidence that one has occupied the field for three years is enough to grant one presumptive ownership of the field – despite the fact that there is no other evidence that the field was purchased.  

In this particular case Reuven alleges that Levi had stolen the property from him and thus, could not confer title to another.  Therefore, even if we believe Shimon’s claim that he purchased the field, and despite evidence that Shimon has been there for three years, his chazakah is undermined and the field would revert back to the original owner, in this case Reuven.

However, things are not quite so simple. Shimon has two witnesses that before buying the field, he approached Reuven to ask his advice regarding the field. And lo and behold, Reuven advised Shimon to purchase the field. Surely if the field had been stolen, Reuven should have spoken up then and there and told him, 'You can’t buy that field, because it’s actually mine and the seller is a thief’. By advising Shimon to buy the field, Reuven gave up any claims he may have on the field.

Yet the Talmud accepts the retort of Reuven that “the second one is easy for me, the first one is harder than him.” 

“Levi the thief is one tough guy, and there was little chance of my recovering the field from him,” he tells Shimon. “His strong-arm tactics, his high-powered legal team and connections make it extremely unlikely that I would be successful in recovering what is rightfully mine. But I knew I would have a much easier time dealing with you, and thus I preferred that you buy it – allowing me to recover the stolen property from you.” Nice guys sometimes do finish last – at least in this world.

As we have often seen, in the realm of business law, the Talmud distinguishes between legal and moral obligations. In offering ill-suited advice, Reuven is in violation of the Biblical prohibition of lifnei iver, of placing a stumbling block before the blind (Vayikra 19:14). The Torah’s definition of blind is not limited to the physically blind, but encompasses the factually blind and the morally blind. When offering advice to another (the factually blind), one must have the best interests of that person in mind[1]. Giving advice to another with one’s own personal interests as the primary focus is the standard violation of this prohibition[2]. Reuven’s ill-intentioned advice to Shimon is bad enough under any circumstances. Doing so in such a blatant way when he knows that he himself will sue Shimon to get the field just compounds the wrong[3].

Yet moral exhortations of the Torah remain just that, and while reprehensible, this is another example of “innocent in the laws of man but guilty in the laws of heaven.” The Torah tries hard to guide us to be honest in business, with laws regulating pricing, advertising, competition, hiring, firing, etc., etc., to help curb our desire to cut corners or worse. Yet only the naïve and foolish trust that these directives are consistently followed in practice. Those who believe everything others tell them in the marketplace (or anywhere else) do so at their own risk.

We thus accept Reuven’s legal claim that his advice to Shimon was self-serving and given so that it would be easier for him to recover his field.   

The Gemara explains that Rava, who issued the ruling, bases himself on an earlier Mishnaic ruling of Admon (Ketubot 13:6) that one who signs a document of sale as a witness does not forfeit his right to make a claim on the sold piece of land, as he can claim, “The second one is easy for me, the first one is harder than him.”

The Gemara even raises the possibility that the Sages who disagree with Admon and argue that signing a document of sale precludes one from claiming it is his, might agree that merely giving advice to another to purchase a field would not cause one to lose their rights to the field. There is a difference between mere speech and signing a legal document.

 

[1] As conflicts of interest are unavoidable, and as a person is close to himself, Jewish law demands we reveal our conflicts of interest so that the advisee can decide how much trust to put in our advice – which to the best of our ability is to be given with the other in mind.

 

[2] It matters little whether the advice turns out to be wonderful in the end. It is the proffering of advice not in the best interests of the questioner itself that is at the core of the prohibition. Conversely, if one gives advice that is most suitable at the time, there is no prohibition despite the fact that, in the end, the advice is terrible. It is the intent, not the result, which matters.

 

[3] This helps explain Rav Yisrael Salanter’s comment that only the truly righteous and morally strong should enter the business world. Those of more average character would be better suited for the rabbinate, where the temptation to sin is not nearly as strong. It’s not very often that one offers his rabbi an opportunity to join in some shady deal.