Solving a Talmudic mystery through Mishpatim (Exodus 22:4)

How much rabbinical ink was spilled because of a drop of spilt ink?

The opening mishnah of Tractate Baba Kama tells us there are four prime categories of damage. The understanding is that any damage caused under any circumstances by party A to party B is a derivative of one of these four master groupings, and the consequences are as stipulated in the Torah for that category.

These fours master categories are all rooted in this week’s parsha, Mishpatim. They are שור (Ox), בור (Pit), מבעה (?), and הבער (Fire). Of these four, the third is considered a mystery and the sages invest a great deal of time, energy and Talmudic folios in their far-reaching – and they really stretch – attempts to discover what this mysterious category מבעה is.

For me the real mystery is why this is a mystery to begin with. Indeed the word מבעה does not appear anywhere in Scripture – most certainly not in Exodus 22 – because it simply does not exist. It is absurd to assume that Rabbi Judah the Prince, who redacted the Mishnah in order to provide a succinct and accessible compendium of core Jewish law would use anything other than a readily accessible, easily understood, biblically sourced term for something as fundamental as a core category of damages as specifically itemized in the Torah.

Can it be that the very word מבעה is simply a typo? That the final letter of the word מבעה is not a ה but a ר? That a scribe somewhere along the line accidentally dropped a spot of ink thereby rendering the ר into a ה?

For indeed the parsha does list, very categorically indeed, a damage that is clearly מבער and not מבעה. And I quote:

כי יבער איש שדה או כרם ןשלח את בעירה
ובער בשדה אחר מיטב שדהו ומיטב כרמו ישלם

If a man shall cause a field or vineyard to be eaten, and shall put in his beast, and shall feed of another man’s field; of the best of his field, and of the best of his vineyard shall he make restitution.

Exodus 22:4

Yes, the word מבער is a term used for the planned consumption of foliage, grass, crops, vines etc in order to clear a field. And in fact, the animal engaged in such activity is referred to as a בעיר the four legged version of a lawn mower, if you will.

Before there was John Deere or International Harvester, fields were stripped of excess vegetation by letting cattle roam freely. Thus the cattle would be fed and the field would be cleared. This was known as מבער and its use was universal. The Torah thus warns us that if one’s cattle does מבער in a neighbor’s field or vineyard, the consequences are payment from the best of the field or vineyard belonging to the owner of the trespassing animal.

It’s all right there in black and white – יבער /בעירה /ובער . And so a drop of ink falls under the ר and turns it into an inadvertent ה and suddenly we have this huge mystery about a nonexistent word.

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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