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Let us consider the mishnah itself, before going on to consider the subsequent gemara.
Rishonim and aharonim1 have asked, “Why does Bava Metzia begins with this particular mishnah, which seems to be but loosely related to the rest of the tractate?” An obvious explanation, of course, is that Bava Metzia is but part of the original, much larger tractate Nezikin; when it was divided, the middle ten chapters were called Bava Metzia (the first ten chapters were established as Bava Kamma, the “First Gate”, and the last ten as Bava Batra, the “Last Gate”). This division, then, was done for reasons of symmetry and convenience, rather than with careful atention paid to subject matter, and anomalies can be explained this way. This is the view of Tosafot2.
Rashbatz3, on the other hand, maintains that this case is but loosely related to others in Bava Metzia. However, the principles used in deciding the mishnah are general in scope, going far beyond the mere division of a lost object, and are also interesting in themselves. The Talmud often discusses a specific, interesting case, going on to elucidate far-reaching principles implied in it, before discussing mishnayot of apparently more general application. Therefore, he holds, he ought not to view this as a mere artifact of an arbitrary division.
Our mishnah begins, “Two are holding on to a garment...” Why a “garment” specifically? Why is a more general term, such as “object”, not used. Torat Hayyim4 points out that, in the following gemara, it is established that there are certain laws appropriate to garments and the ways in which they are held which do not apply to other objects; therefore, the mishnah discusses “garment”, specifically, in order to elucidate these laws.
It is noted that the item under discussion in the mishnah is the tallit. In the early centuries CE, this was a large, rectangular piece of cloth with ritual fringes (tzitzit) worn as an outer garment by men (roughly analogous to the Roman toga). It survives in the present day as the tallit koton (“prayer shawl”). The tallit is used as an example here for three reasons. First, since the tallit was an outer garment, it common for men to remove it before doing physical labor (as with a coat or jacket in modern times). Thus, it was not uncommon to find a lost tallit, blown away by the wind or simply forgotten by its owner. Second, whilst the tallit might be woven of stuffs of different textures and/or colors (although not, of course, of different materials), it was essentially just a piece of cloth. In chapter 2 of Bava Metzia, we learn that Torah law requires us to return a lost object to his owner, provided that it has such identifying features as to make us reasonably certain that the claimant is in fact the owner, and not someone seeking to claim it for his own gain. A tallit is quite likely to be lacking such identifying features, and thus may be justly claimed by the finder. Third, a tallit, being as mentioned before, essentially just a piece of cloth, is thus capable of being physically divided without destroying its value, as would be the case if the item under dispute were, e.g., a live donkey.
A further note is made of the Hebrew spellings. The first and last letters of tallit are different. The first letter is tet, which is invariably is romanized “t”, and pronounced /t/. The final letter, however, is tav. Around the beginning of the Common Era, this letter was pronounced as an aspirated “t”, very roughly /th/, a pronunciation similar to that of koine Greek theta, and which is preserved in Yemeni Hebrew (due to the influence of Arabic) to this day. In Ashkenazi Hebrew, however, tav has come to be pronounced /s/, whilst in Sephardi (and Israeli) Hebrew, it is now pronounced /t/. The romanized spellings generally follow one of these pronunciations, although tav is sometimes romanized as “th” (e.g., “matzoth”), by analogy to the romanization of theta.
It is noted that the last letter of tzitzit is also tav. The rules of tzitzit are one of the most obvious (although perhaps not the most fundamental) differences between Rabbinic (or Talmudic) and Karaite Judaism, the latter being a strain of Jewish thought arising in the eighth century CE that denied the authority of the Oral Torah. In Deuteronomy 22:12 and Numbers 15:38-40, the mitzvah is found to dye some threads used tekhelet. Tekhelet is both the name of a particular color, and of a specific dyestuff (cf. English “indigo”). Chazal ruled, in accordance with their understanding that the mitzvah is to make tzitzit of threads dyed with tekhelet, that the mitzvah cannot be followed (Menahot 4:1)5,6. The Kara’im, on the other hand, say that the mitzvah is to use threads dyed the color of tekhelet, and that if actual tekhelet is unavailable, a substitute must be used
.1Rishonim are “first ones”, commentators on the Talmud prior to the publication of Rabbi Yosef Karo’s Shulhan Arukh (“Set Table”) , the authoritative collection of Halakhic decisions, in 1565 CE. Aharonim are “last ones”, commentators since then. It is a rule of decision-making that no aharon has the personal authority to independently disagree with a rishon, although he may adopt the position of a rishon whose views are not generally followed in Halakhah7.
2Commentators and novellists of the French and German yeshivot of the 12th and 13th centuries CE, expanding on the work of Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzhak, 1040-1105, greatest of all Torah and Talmud commentators). Many of Tosafot were not only Rashi’s students, but his descendants.
3Rabbi Shimon ben Tzemah Duran, posek of Spain, 1361-1444.
4Rabbi Avraham Hayyim Shor (d. 1632), so called after his great collection of Talmudic novellae, Torat Hayyim.
5Tekhelet was made from a specific type of snail, the haltzun (cf. Tyrian purple, which was a different color, however). Already when the mishnayot were being composed, the haltzun was so rare that it was said to appear only “once every seventy years”8 (idiomatic for “once in a great while”). It may be extinct; moreover, we cannot identify it and, even if we could and it is not extinct, the method of preparing tekhelet from it has been lost.
6There are 110 pages of gemara for Menahot in BT, but none in JT; they may been lost, or never collected in the first place.
7”Tao” ;) Really; halakhah is, literally, “path” and is used to mean normative law.
John "Akatsukami" Braue Monday, January 26, 2004