Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Pot of Gold

Many years ago, when LBJ was still a popular president and I was a wee lad, a miracle happened. One of the kids on the block discovered a large pile of coins on the sidewalk, just around the corner. Immediately every single urchin in sight converged on the spot, and we all stuffed our pockets, first, and then our socks. That evening all the parents forced us to hand over all the coins from all the pockets, but if memory serves, they didn't think to look in the socks. The coins, by the way, were all foreign, so it's not clear what anyone was going to do with them, short of stashing them away towards an eventual trip to Argentina or Greece. I also didn't understand then, and don't know still, how all those parents thought they were going to give the coins back to their owner. Anyway, this is a true story. Honest.

Ages earlier, precisely 18 centuries give or take a few, the rabbis of the Mishna and then the ones of the Gemara had spent page after page of the Bava Metzia tractate deliberating what to do with lost and founds.The principle is that if the lost items can be identified and were lost in a place where finders are likely to make the effort to find the owners, that's what has to be done. If they can't be identified, or if the circumstances mean making the effort is unlikely, the loser is understood to have lost hope and the finder is richer for it. An example could be a pile of coins in a public place - though true to form, once the Gemara has fully thought through all the arcane sub-possibilities of that scenario (page 21), it invents a new angle that enables the discussion to be revisited all over again (page 25).

The daf yomi folks are traversing this territory this week. Over the years I've wandered by this section a number of times already. Each time I do so, and my fellow students mutter about how unlikely the whole thing is, since how exactly would a pile of coins be found on the sidewalk, I sagely tell them that such things can happen. It's not just logical hair-splitting and theoritical constructs of bored legal-types.


Nobody said...

Also, Chazal's pants didn't have pockets.

Joe in Australia said...

Surely they would have had pockets if they had seen a need for them. But since they distributed all their money to tzedaka they had no need for pockets, and they would have disdained pants with empty pockets for their ostentatious appearance.