We begin at the start of the second chapter of Baba Metzia, on folio page 21a.

The text deals with the general issue of the requirement to return a lost object. The requirement is, in fact, biblical, but we will not get to the discussion of the biblical sources until the top of 26b.

The Mishna:

These are the found objects that are his [i.e., that belong to the finder] and these he [the finder] must announce.

If he found scattered fruits, scattered coins, sheaves of grain in a public place, round cakes of pressed figs, baker's loaves, strings of fish, pieces of meat, bundles of raw wool, bundles of flax, tongues of carded and dyed purple wool -- all these belong to him [the finder]. These are the words of R. Meir.

R. Yehuda says: Anything that has something unusual about it [i.e., an unusual feature] must be announced [i.e., the finder must attempt to locate the owner]. What is an example? If one found a round cake [of figs] with a pottery shard in it or a loaf of bread with coins in it.

R. Shim`on b. El`azar says: All anporya vessels do not have to be announced. [What are anporya vessels? Rashi, the classic basic commentary on the Talmud tells us that the gemara will explain later. Meanwhile, cf. emporium, from the Greek _emporia_: trade, merchandise.]

[Comment: The basic principle of the Mishna is that if one loses an object with no identifying marks, the original owner gives up hope of ever recovering it. Once the original owner gives up hope, the lost object becomes ownerless, and the finder can immediately gain ownership. All the items enumerated in the Mishna are such "unidentifiable" objects, although The Mishna does not state the principle explicitly. The gemara will give a more thorough analysis {and enunciate the general principle.]

The gemara

The gemara begins by analyzing the first case presented in the Mishna:

The Mishna records: "If he found scattered fruits" [the finder may keep them].

How much (fruit scattered over how much area)?

R. Yitzhak said: One kav over an area of four amot.

[The specific quantities of a kav and an amah (singular of amot) are problematic. The volume of a kav depends on the definition of the volume of an egg. Contemporary halakhic authorities (and historians) differ, with estimates of a kav ranging from about 1.5 quarts to a little over 2.5 quarts. The disputes over the definition are reflected in such contemporary issues as how large a kiddush cup should be, and how much matza one must eat at the Passover seder. For the purposes of this discussion, let's let it go at that. Amah, literally forearm, is usually translated as cubit, a unit of length some 18-24 inches long. Here the Talmud speaks of amot but, from the context, must actually be referring to square amot.]

The gemara then asks: How so (i.e., under what circumstances does R. Yitzhak's rule apply)?

If (the fruit was scattered) as if it had fallen (i.e., clearly dropped unintentionally, and not placed there on purpose), even more (than a kav per four amot should belong to the finder, on the grounds that the original owner must have despaired). If (the fruit) seems purposefully placed (i.e., not accidentally fallen, but in a neat pattern), even less (than a kav per four amot) should not belong to the finder (since the original owner has not despaired).

Rav Ukva bar Hama said: The Mishna is dealing with grain that has been left after the grain on the threshing floor has been collected. (During threshing, some grain falls to the floor. After threshing, the grain is collected, but some remains ... and it is the residual grain that is the focus of the Mishna). When there is one kav in four amot, great effort is involved in collecting it, and the owner does not bother to return to collect the remaining grain; he abandons it. But if it is in an area less that four amot, a person does make the effort to return to collect the grain, and the owner does not abandon it (so that the finder cannot claim it).

[Next, the gemara presents four questions asked by R. Yirmiah. R. Yirmiah's approach was, in general, to focus on the boundary limits of halakha. In particular, he disapproved of setting inflexible quantitative rules. R. Yirmiah was respected as a brilliant scholar, but his approach sometimes got him into trouble. In one oft-cited case, he focused on a ruling involving fledgling birds found near a privately-owned nesting box; the gemara rule that fledglings within 50 amot of the nesting box belonged to the owner of the box, but fledglings beyond 50 amot belonged to the finder. R. Yirmiah asked about the status of a fledgling found straddling the 50-amah line. His colleagues threw him out of the study hall. :-) ]

R. Yirmiah asked: What of half a kav over a two amah area . Is it the case that a kav spread over four amot belongs to the finder because the collection effort is too great (so that the owner abandons the stuff) -- so that, in the case of half a kav over a two amah area, which does not involve so much work, the owner does not abandon his rights and the finder cannot claim the grain? Or perhaps the rationale for the kav per four amot ruling is because a kav simply isn't enough to be concerned with -- in which case, a half kav is certainly insignificant, and the owner _does_ renounce ownership (and the finder can claim it)?

R. Yirmiah's second question: Two kavs over an eight amah area -- what is the law? Is the kav per four amot rule because the collection effort is too great, in which case the collection effort in an eight amah area is certainly excessive, and the owner abandons it (and it belongs to the finder). Or perhaps the kav per four square amot rule is because a kav is simply an insignificant amount, but two kavs _are_ significant (and the owner does not renounce ownership)?

R. Yirmiah's third question: A kav of sesame seeds spread over a four amah area -- what is the law? Is the Mishna's kav per four amot because grain is inexpensive, but sesame seeds are more valuable, so that the owner would not abandon them? Or perhaps the Mishna's reason is that the effort to collect the grain is too great -- and sesame seeds are even more difficult to collect, so the owner certainly would abandon them?

R. Yirmiah's fourth question: A kav of dates over a four amah area -- what is the law? Is the reason for the Mishna's kav of grain per four square amot ruling because the grain is inexpensive? -- if so, a kav of dates over four amot or a kav of pomegranites over four amot is also inexpensive, and the owner will abandon them. Or perhaps the reason for the ruling on grain is that the collection effort is great, but a kav of dates or of pomegranites over a four amah area is not difficult to collect, so the owner does not abandon them?

The gemara answers: Teiku [literally, "let is stand," i.e., the issue remains unresolved. Some translate the term "teiku" as an acronym for "Tishbi y'taretz kushi'ot v'abayot" -- Elijah (from the town of Toshav) will translate questions and difficulties.]

We are now at the bottom of BM 21a.

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