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Bava Kamma 53

Our Gemara on Amud Aleph discusses the opinion of Rabbi Nassan who holds that if two people or agents caused damage, though they split the payment, if one is unable to pay, the other assumes 100% liability. Rabbi Nassan seems to hold that instead of looking at each damager to be 50% responsible, we look at each one as 100% responsible. It just so happens that ordinarily since both can pay the debt, they split the cost. But when one cannot pay, the other must make full restitution.


This idea of whether a shared responsibility is considered as fractionally divided amongst the parties or whether all parties are fully responsible can be applied in the social contract as well. When two people are responsible for something, do each of them see themselves as fully responsible, even when the other does their share?

In relationships, it is key to avoid a pattern of measuring or comparing output. Often, counting how much you do versus how much the other does leads to frustration and makes you feel even more resentful. There may be cognitive biases that emphasize and cause you to notice how hard you are working, versus your spouse. A better model for behavior in a relationship is values based, and not reactive. The person’s behavior should not be contingent on the other spouse’s actions, but based on what is believed to be a good spouse. Couples can discuss definitions of responsibilities and agree upon roles, but the day-to-day actions or inactions cannot be retaliation.

Often when a relationship heads into a downward spiral, each will feel the other somehow “started,” and they are only reacting. While this might be technically true, it also could be that the other may have unwittingly caused hurt or distance first. That is why it is wise to behave based on what you believe a spouse should do, not based on how your spouse treated you today. I emphasize that this doesn’t preclude discussing overall trends, and to confront patterns of failure to live up to expectations – just don’t make your actions contingent upon it.

If our behavior is reactive instead of values-based, we will end up getting lost in cycles of tit for tat. It also is a violation of the halachic definition of nekama, which is defined as withholding a chesed from another based on how you were previously treated. (“Do not take revenge nor bear a grudge” Vayikra 19:18. The Gemara (Yoma 23a) defines what exactly constitutes taking revenge: Taking revenge is when one asks another to lend him his saw and he says no. The next day, the second neighbor asks to borrow an ax and he says, “I will not lend to you just as you did not lend to me.”)

It is statistically likely that spouses will have strengths and weaknesses in different areas, and it also is likely in many areas one spouse could carry more of the load. This alone is not a problem. In almost any system, micro or macro, such as families or government, it is given that some individuals will far exceed others in contribution and productivity. Such inequities are stable, so long as there is a general sense that each person is doing the best they can. By each person taking 100% responsibility for the relationship stability, there is a good chance that between the human imperfections of each person, the other can compensate and cover. Even when gaps or unfairness becomes apparent, the problem stays localized and isn’t translated into a cycle of withdrawal or retaliation. The issue is confronted, but if one doesn’t do their 50% share, the other still meanwhile takes full responsibility.

I say meanwhile, because every situation has limits. If a person is in a relationship where there is consistent lack of responsibility taking, and extended periods of not putting in reasonable efforts, sometimes it’s only fair that the functioning spouse be allowed to leave the relationship and find a suitable partner in life if there is no effort nor hope for progress. Even so, a decision to divorce based on a spouse’s failure to meet minimum standards of a relationship does not justify withholding or retaliation while still in the relationship. Divorce may be halachically permitted, but revenge is not.


By Any Means Necessary:
Bava Kamma 56

Our Gemara on Amud Aleph discusses the liability of an owner who left an animal secured in a corral, but also in intense heat. Though the wall of the corral was sturdy, and therefore it was highly improbable that the animal should break out, and even if it did so in an unusual manner such as digging under the wall, nonetheless we hold the owner liable for the damage the animal caused after it escaped. This ruling is despite the standard position of the Gemara that an owner is not required to safeguard against unusual circumstances. This is because given the distress the animal felt from the heat, despite it seeming impossible, the owner should have known that the animal would somehow find a way to escape. Thus, under the certain circumstances, the unusual and impossible should have been expected. The raw animal will to survive can overcome many barriers.

It is a bad idea to push against survival instincts. Humans, too, have raw instincts and some of the most basic ones are about a sense of power and control. While children need discipline and consequences, there has to be a recognition of age-appropriate need for control and power. If a parent is too domineering, parenting gets reduced to a power struggle. In such situations, winning is losing. If you succeed in compelling your child to obey, it can come at the cost of killing off independence and competency. And if your child feels cornered, he might fight back for control by all means necessary, just as a cornered animal will escape by all means necessary.


The Gemara (Moed Kattan 17a) warns that one may not hit his older son, as this is a violation of lifnei iver (causing another to sin). That is, it is too much of a provocation for the child and likely that he would hit back, causing him to commit a grave sin. The age of this “older son” is not agreed upon. Shulchan Aruch, (Rama, YD 240:20) rules that this age is 22-24. But the Ritva says there is no set age. Rather it is dependent on the child’s nature, and when he would be likely to react with hostility. Rav Wolbe (Zeriyah Ubinyan Bechinuch, page 23) states further that in modern times this might preclude a child of any age, given that even a young child is less likely to accept harsh rebuke meekly and humbly. Rav Yaakov Yechiel Weinberg (Shu”t Seridei Eish II:49) advises that this is not limited to physical aggression, but also includes any counterproductive harshness that is likely to inspire rebellion instead of internalization, thus even inappropriately harsh attitude could violate Lifnei Iver as well.

I will conclude with one final powerful point about the limits of human nature and a deep need to push back, even when rebellion and resistance is useless. The Gemara (Bava Basra 16b) notices that even though Iyov spoke angrily at G-d, G-d took no issues with Iyov and instead had complaints at the way his friends spoke – his friends who were seemingly more righteous and spoke in defense of G-d. Rava said, “From here we see that a man is not held responsible for what he utters in pain.” Even G-d understands and forgives a rebellious reaction in the face of a sudden loss. As parents and authority figures, we must keep in mind that sometimes the animal within will be too sorely tempted to fight its way out and employ judgment, compassion and a degree of humility when we discipline.


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