This year (5777 / 2016-7) our Sunday Talmud studied “HaBayit v’Aliyah” the tenth chapter of Bava Metziah, once a week after prayers at the Minyan Brunch.

The last Mishna in “HaBayit v’Aliyah” the 10th chapter (all about upstairs and downstairs apartments) of Talmud tractate Bava Metziah is the case of the upper and lower garden:

The case of an higher and lower garden that are owned by two different people. There’s a vertical wall (of earth) between the gardens (like a terraced tiered garden). Who owns the produce growing out of the vertical wall between the two gardens? There are 3 opinions:

Rabbi Meir: It all belongs to the upper gardener.

Rabbi Yehudah: It all belongs to the lower gardener.

Rabbi Shimon: Whatever the upper gardener can reach (without stretching) belongs to him, all the rest belongs to the lower gardener. 

There’s more to the Mishna, but those are the key points. And then the Talmud, at the end of the chapter, which is the very end of the whole tractate Bava Metziah, says this about this last opinion of Rabbi Shimon. This short story/exchange is the conclusion of the great Talmud tractate Bava Metziah: 

They (the Rabbis) shared Rabbi Shimon’s (compromise) ruling (that upper gardener only gets as far as he can reach, and lower gardener gets the rest) with King Shapur. He told them (something like:) Wow, Wow! Extend our gracious appreciation to Rabbi Shimon! 

There are many questions here:

1) Why does Rabbi Shimon compromise in this lopsided fashion? Why not have them both get as far as they can reach and then split the rest? or if looking for a compromise, why not just split down the middle? Why split in a way that benefits the lower gardener (especially in a case of a higher vertical wall between the two gardens)? Why not give the lower gardener as far as he can reach and give all the rest to the upper gardener? 

2) It is rather unusual for the Rabbis of the Talmud to share such a teaching outside their academic circles, especially with a non-Jewish king. Why specifically this teaching?

3) King Shapur’s response is fascinating. Why was he so excited and appreciative for Rabbi Shimon’s ruling? It seems like a technical legal matter, why was he so effusive? 

4) And why end the Talmud tractate on this note? Usually Rabbinic texts like to end off with something especially meaningful or uplifting… 

Here are some answers and insights we got at a wonderful group discussion over Shabbat Lunch:

Mordechai R: These horizontal plants may have been growing out of the earth underneath the upper garden but they were out of sight, out of mind. But they were growing in constant sight and possible interference of the lower garden. The lower guy had to deal with these plants overhead all this time! It is therefore right that lower garden should get more if it, even beyond his reach. And King Shapur must have liked it because: “You get according to how much you had to deal with” is a lesson for many areas of life. 

Jonah A: King Shapur may have seen this as a lesson for his monarchy and the limits of royal power. He realized that while royalty (symbolized by upper-garden) has its power and reach, all the rest of the power is up to the people. The king himself, no matter how mighty, can not reach and control everything.

Mr. Benjamin Liviem (a Persian Shabbat guest): In our Persian history books we learned that Shapur was an enlightened open-minded monarch who sought to learn from and appreciate all cultures under his rule and had high regard for the Rabbis. (This supports Jonah’s theory).

Grant H: I think this must be political. The Rabbis must have known that King Shapur would see Rabbi Shimon’s ruling favorably, perhaps it jived with something Shapur himself ruled? Otherwise I am especially troubled why the Rabbis chose such a lopsided compromise and didn’t even mention the go-to simple ruling of divide in half, right down the middle…

Jonathan K: Perhaps King Shapur himself was involvee in such a case with an upper gardener (perhaps less likely for a king) and Rabbi Shimon’s ruling was if personal benefit to him?

Elliott W: I’m wondering if a terraced garden might have been the physical setting of the Rabbi’s discussion with King Shapur and that’s what caused this discussion to come up. That may explain why they were talking about this random rule with the king.

Aliza B: I’m thinking metaphorically, as the upper garden looks down at the lower garden. When you look down, especially down a vertical wall, your view is limited. And emotionally, looking down at others blinds your view as well. Looking up, on the other hand, allows you to see all of that vertical wall, and as we look up in life – we have less blind spots.

 Yoni A: (who has been thinking of this case metaphorically since the questions first arose in the Talmud class, sees it similar to Aliza but slightly different) The lower guy has limited vision to see what the upper garden might be planting, while the lower garden is in full view of the upper garden all the time. Looking upward has so much more unknown, limitless potential, while looking down everything is in obvious plain sight. 

Rachel L: I know the Talmud goes with Rabbi Shimon’s compromise here but personally I’d side with Rabbi Meir that all belongs to upper gardener, because to me the roots of plants determine everything (this is a significant factor in the Talmud by the way). But I see the point of compromise, especially since there is moral value in acknowledging that its not all mine, and all that grows is indeed a blessing from G-d..

Rabbi Mendel’s answer to be posted soon..