Sunday, 25 June 2017

Bava Batra 154: Inheritance, Witnesses, Proof, and Changing the Laws

What is the proof that will allow a person to accept money that was given by a person on his or her deathbed?  Are witnesses' testimonies enough, or must they sign documents?  This argument carries on through today's daf.  Complicated cases are shared to demonstrate that witnesses might be compromise in some way - perhaps they died; perhaps they were minors.  This argument is one of the longstanding, respectful but passionate arguments between Reish Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan. Reish Lakish believe that witnesses must have signed the document.  Rabbi Yochanan holds that the testimony of witnesses is enough.  Rav Huna and Rav Chisda agree with Reish Lakish.

A case is introduced in amud (b) involving one who sold his inherited property and then died.  Family members wished to invalidate the sale.  They claimed he was a minor when he sold the land - he was old enough to sell the land but he had never been checked to prove that he had the two pubic hairs which would prove his adult status.  Rabbi Akiva rejected their claim on two counts: it disgraces this man, and because the body changes after death, the examination would be meaningless.

The rabbis discuss the motivations of this man's family, the nature of 'disgracing' someone, and they process involved in checking for change in a body.  The conversation moves toward questions of validating documents and whether or not witnesses can be believed based on just their words.  The rabbis argue based on what past chachamim have argued.  One of their arguments asserts that changing the ruling now would mean changing the Mishna and the baraita that suggest otherwise.

This is a larger question in Jewish law.  Much of halacha, from its origins until now, is based on what greater thinkers have determined to be correct in the past.  Each new law builds on the truth that has come before.  Once we change a law, we change both the present and we change the past, for we are claiming that we know as much or more than the sages who came before us.  And even if we argue that we do know more than our ancestors about this particular context in which we live, we are changing basic ideological foundations when we discount the 'everlasting truth' of what has come before us.

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