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Dialogue and Dialectics

TalmudicAn Example Of A Dialectical Argument

The Mishnah is a law code organized by topics, and Baba Mesia—the Middle Gate—concerns civil law, in the present case, torts and damages and contradictory claims.

Mishnah Baba Mesia 1:1

  1. Two lay hold of a cloak—
  2. this one says, "I found it!—
  3. and that one says, "I found it!"—
  4. this one says, "It's all mine!"—
  5. and that one says, "It's all mine!"—
  6. this one takes an oath that he possesses no less a share of it than half,
  7. and that one takes an oath that he possesses no less a share of it than half,
  8. and they divide it up.

Bavli Baba Mesia 5B–6A

  • This one takes an oath that he possesses no less a share of it than half, [and that one takes an oath that he possesses no less a share of it than half, and they divide it up]
  • Is it concerning the portion that he claims he possesses that he takes the oath, or concerning the portion that he does not claim to possess? [Samuel Daiches, Baba Mesia (London, 1948), ad loc.: "The implication is that the terms of the oath are ambiguous. By swearing that his share in it is not 'less than half,' the claimant might mean that it is not even a third or a fourth (which is 'less than half'), and the negative way of putting it would justify such an interpretation. He could therefore take this oath even if he knew that he had no share in the garment at all, while he would be swearing falsely if he really had a share in the garment that is less than half, however small that share might be]."
  • Said R. Huna, "It is that he says, 'By an oath! I possess in it a portion, and I possess in it a portion that is no more than half a share of it.'" [The claimant swears that his share is at least half (Daiches, Baba Mesia, ad loc.)].
  • Then let him say, "By an oath! The whole of it is mine!"
  • But are we going to give him the whole of it? [Obviously not, there is another claimant, also taking an oath.]
  • Then let him say, "By an oath! Half of it is mine!"
  • That would damage his own claim [which was that he owned the whole of the cloak, not only half of it].
  • But here too is it not the fact that, in the oath that he is taking, he impairs his own claim? [After all, he here makes explicit the fact that he owns at least half of it. What happened to the other half?]
  • [Not at all.] For he has said, "The whole of it is mine!" [And, he further proceeds,] "And as to your contrary view, By an oath, I do have a share in it, and that share is no less than half!"

SOURCE: Jacob Neusner, Tractate Baba Mesia.

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