Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Bava Kamma 113: Not Showing Up to Court; Customs, Taxes and Religious Differences

Our daf begins with a discussion about going to court.  Actually going to court.  We learn that people are given a letter of ostracization if they do not attend court as required.  The document can be torn up if a person does come to court at a later date.  Is it enough for a person to miss one court date?  Does it depend on whether they live in the city or in the country?  Those in the city are assumed to be able to get to court easily.  But are they formally ostracized if they miss the first Monday at court?  Or are they permitted to attend court the following Thursday?  Or the following Monday?  The rabbis disagree about when a formal letter is written.

The rabbis do not expect people to attend court during the months of Nisan or Tishrei, on the erevs before Festivals or Shabbat. People might forget about their court dates.  

A new Mishna teaches us that one may not exchange larger coins for smaller ones from the trunk of customs collectors or the purse of tax collectors.  People were told not to take charity from them, either.  Taking money from their homes or their own personal funds is permitted.

The Gemara tells us about the tax collector role: the King would appoint agents to collect monies from the population, and that was considered to be necessary and good by our Sages.  However, tax collectors might collect monies beyond what was suggested by the King.  Or the King might insist that all citizens pay taxes for something that the rabbis would deem unnecessary.  

It is clear that Jews are not permitted to avoid paying customs.  Shmuel said that “the law of the kingdom is the law”.  However, our daf moves into conversations about how Jews and Gentiles might be treated similarly or differently.  This conversation is quite disturbing to our modern understandings of equitable and fair treatment of all people.  The rabbis seem to be concerned with the idea that a Gentile might think badly of Jews; simultaneously rabbis find proofs to support the notion that Jews must protect other Jews and that there is no need to protect Gentiles.  

To understand this better, we should consider the context.  Jews were one of many sects of that time period, each attempting to establish its authority.  Gentiles were almost always in power politically and nationally.  They were often cruel to the Jews in their lands but sometimes benevolent.  Jews were very suspicious of Gentiles - they were seen as threats. 
Further, the Torah dictated different laws for Jews and Gentiles, men and women, children and adults, neighbours and family members.  Of course Gentiles would be treated differently from Jews.  

Today's post-modern sensibilities do not allow for the essentialism that our daf describes.  It is not comfortable or easy to read.  But it is helpful toward understanding the realities of our ancestors' lives.

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