NOTE: The following is essentially identical to the published version, minus revisions made in the course of final editing and proofreading.
 Jeffrey H. Tigay
University of Pennsylvania

 My friendship with Nahum Sarna spans thirty years, from the time I was his student at the Jewish Theological Seminary through our recent collaboration on the JPS Torah Commentary. It was my good fortune to meet him in a setting where I was able to learn from his personal qualities no less than his scholarly ones. It is a privilege for me to acknowledge his friendship and scholarly inspiration and to join in this expression of esteem and good wishes.

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     In  the Hebrew letter from Yavneh-Yam, near Kibbutz Palma him, published by Joseph Naveh in 1960,1 the petitioner complains to an official that although he had finished his work properly, his garment was seized by his superior, one Hashabiahu b. Shobai. Naveh and subsequent writers on the inscription have explained the seizure in the light of passages in the Bible which refer to the distraint of garments for non-payment of debts. According to Naveh, the petitioner was "one of many reapers who were apparently working in the governor's service. It seems that the charge was one of idling..."2 F.M Cross, on the other hand, argued that the petitioner was more likely a small farmer or sharecropper who owed the military establishment part of his crop. Cross reasoned that

if [the petitioner] were merely a conscripted laborer, or hireling, it is difficult to see why a pledge was taken; other forms of retaliation, non-payment of wages, corporal punishment or confinement, or an increased work load, would appear more appropriate.3

J. Milgrom held that the petitioner was a defaulting debtor whose creditor had pursued him into the field to distrain his garment. Milgrom reasoned

That Hosaiah was in fact a creditor may be inferred from the plaintiff's plea that even if he is not innocent (of Hosaiah's claim) the garment should be returned..., an expectancy that is plausible only in the light of the pentateuchal law of distraint, Exod. 22:25-26. Indeed, if the complainant were not a debtor what would lead him to expect the return of the garment?4

Like Milgrom, Naveh and Cross also accommodated their views to the Biblical laws. To Naveh, "it seems likely that the debt in this case was simply [the petitioner's] quota of work." To Cross, on the other hand, "the taking of the garment implies the claim of a creditor," that is, one owed a material obligation and not merely a labor quota.

 The Biblical laws about the seizure of garments are certainly pertinent to the inscription. Creditors in at least some cases had a right to take property from their debtors to induce them to repay their debts. So far as is known, in Israel pledges were neither taken nor specified at the time of the loan. Rather, the lender had a lien on the debtor's possessions. If the debtor defaulted, the creditor would receive or distrain (Heb. hbm, sbi)5 some of his property, choosing what to take either in agreement with the debtor or at his own discretion.6 Since the property seized was sometimes of little value to the creditor (according to the Torah, the creditor could not even sleep in a seized night-garment but had to return it to the debtor every night!), its function was evidently not to satisfy the debt but to pressure the creditor to repay by depriving him of something important to him.

     Since borrowers were usually impoverished, they would often have few possessions left apart from clothing and necessary household items, thus limiting the creditor's choice of objects to distrain. Clothing is mentioned in several passages.7  The aim of the Torah's laws about distraint is to ensure that in such circumstances, the creditor's legitimate right to force repayment is subordinated to the survival and dignity of the debtor. Accordingly, the creditor may not take a handmill, which is necessary for making food (Deut. 24:6), he may not take a widow's garment (v. 17), if he takes a poor man's night cover he must return it every evening (vv. 12-13; Exod. 23:25-26), and he may not invade the debtor's house to seize an object for distraint but must wait outside while the debtor brings it to him (Deut. 24:10-11).8 These restrictions considerably reduce the creditor's leverage in securing repayment, but they are consistent with the Bible's position that loans to the poor are acts of charity that may well turn into outright gifts.

     The Yavneh-Yam inscription, with its complaint about distraint for alleged nonfeasance, is the earliest evidence we have that garments might be seized for reasons other than default on a loan. There is also evidence from the Talmudic period to the same effect.9 Talmudic sources describe one or two cases that are in some respects strikingly similar to the case described in the inscription. Translations follow; for clarity, I have substi-tuted pertinent names for the pronouns that appear in the text. According to the Palestinian Talmud:

R. Nehemiah was a potter. He gave some of his pots to a man who broke them, and R. Nehemiah took his cloak. The man went to R. Yose b. Haninah who said: "Go tell him (that Scripture says) 'Follow the ways of the good' (Prov. 2:20a)." He went and told him, and R. Nehemiah gave him back his cloak. R. Yose b. Haninah asked the man, "Did he pay you your wages?" The man said, "No." R. Yose b. Haninah said: "Go tell him (that the rest of the verse says) 'And keep to the paths of the just' (Prov. 2:20b)." He went and told him and he paid him his wages.10

 A similar account appears in the Babylonian Talmud and in Yalqut Shimoni. The version in the Yalqut, which is clearest and seems to be closest to the original, is as follows:

Rabbah bar bar Hannah hired some porters to carry a jug of wine for him. They broke it and he took their cloaks. They went before Rav (d. 247). He said to Rabbah bar bar Hannah, "Go and give them their cloaks." Rabbah bar bar Hannah asked, "Is this the law?" Said Rav, "(As Scripture says), 'Follow the ways of the good' (Prov. 2:20a)." They then stood and cried out to Rav, saying, "We are poor and we worked for him the entire day; we are hungry and have nothing to eat." So Rav said to Rabbah bar bar Hannah, "Go pay them their wages." Rabbah bar bar Hannah asked, "Is this the law?" Said Rav, "(As the rest of the verse says), 'And keep to the paths of the just' (Prov. 2:20b)."11

 Legally the porters in these cases were liable for the damage they caused.12 Their employers distrained their cloaks. The sages to whom the porters appealed did not deny that they were liable,13  but advised their employers, who were sages, to forgo their rights under the circumstances, in keeping with Proverbs 2:20 as understood by those sages.14

 It is clear that the employers distrained the porters' cloaks as surety for the loss the porters caused. As in the case of the Biblical laws, it is not clear whether the cloaks were valuable enough to offset the loss or whether they were held simply to pressure the porters into making good the loss.15 One group of commentators, in fact, holds that the employers' purpose was simply to pressure the porters into appearing in court so that their liability could be determined.16

 Since R. Yose b. Hanina was an  amora of the second generation in Israel, the incident reported in the Palestinian Talmud implicitly took place in Israel during the third century C.E., some nine centuries later than that reported in the Yavneh-Yam letter.  The same century is implied for the Yalqut/Babylonian Talmud version by the fact that Rav probably is the correct reading of the name of the sage to whom the porters appealed in it. That version may imply a Babylonian locale, but there is room for doubt.17   Complicating matters even further is the fact that the stories are similar enough to have suggested to several scholars that they are really two versions of a single incident; which is the original is debated. Hence it is not certain whether the incident or incidents parallel to that re-ported in the Yavneh-Yam letter took place in Israel or Babylonia or both.

 Our main interest in these passages lies in the fact that an employer distrained the cloaks of laborers whose negligent peformance of their duty had caused him financial loss. The laborers, the employer, and the sage to whom they appeal play roles parallel to those of the petitioner, of Hashabiahu b. Shobai, and of the officer in the Yavneh-Yam letter. The parallels are not precise enough to resolve the difference of opinion between Naveh, Cross, and Milgrom. In fact, they are partly compatible with each view. In that they involve hired laborers (as Naveh holds regarding the Yavneh Yam inscription), they show that distraint of garments was not practiced only against defaulting debtors. However, they neither confirm nor disprove that garments might be distrained for simple nonperformance of duty.  Since in these cases the laborers' destroyed their employers' goods, they show that garments might be distrained for a specific material obligation, as Cross and Milgrom hold. Clearly, however, they do not relate to farmers or sharecroppers or defaulting debtors.

 Despite the fact that this issue remains unresolved, the Talmudic case, or cases, show that garments might indeed be distrained for either negligence or non-feasance in situations other than default on a loan, and they show that the case described in the Yavneh-Yam letter was not anomalous.


 1. J. Naveh, "A Hebrew Letter from the Seventh Century B.C.," IEJ 10 (1960):129-139 (=KAI 200; ANET, p. 568). The most recent (grammatical) study of the inscription is M. Weippert, "Die Petition eines Erntarbeiters aus Mesad Hashavyahu und die Syntax althebraischer erzahlender Prosa," in E. Blum et al., Die Hebraische Bibel und ihre zweifache Nachgeschichte (Festschrift...Rendtorff) (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 19--), pp. 449-466. For bibliography see D. Pardee et al., Handbook of Ancient Hebrew Letters (SBL Sources for Biblical Study 15; Chico, California: Scholars Press, 1982), pp. 16-20; R.W. Suder, Hebrew Inscriptions. A Classified Bibliography (Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press, 1984), pp. 62-63; Weippert, p. 458 n. 19. I am grateful to Prof. Jonas C. Greenfield for the reference to Weippert's article and for sever-al helpful suggestions about the present study.

 2. Naveh, p. 135; cf. A. Lemaire, Inscriptions hebrai_"ques (Paris: Editions du Cerf, 1977), pp. 264, 267f.

 3. F.M. Cross, "Epigraphic Notes on Hebrew Documents of the Eighth-Sixth Centuries B.C.: II. The Murabba'at Papyrus and the Letter Found Near Yabneh-Yam," BASOR 165 (1962):46.

 4. J. Milgrom, Cult and Conscience (Leiden: Brill, 1976), p. 96 n. 349.

 5. Rashi, Exod. 22:25; Loewenstamm, syb?=sbi , Leshonenu 25 (1960-61):111-114; Milgrom, Cult and Conscience, pp. 95-98, 102-104.

 6. Cf. Jos., Ant. 4:268-70; A.E. Cowley, Aramaic Papyri of the Fifth Century B.C. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1923), no. 10:9-10, 17; E.G. Kraeling, The Brooklyn Museum Aramaic Papyri (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953), no. 11:9-11. See Milgrom, Cult and Conscience, pp. 94-104; I. L. Seeligmann, "Lending, Pledge and Interest in Biblical Law and Biblical Thought," in Studies in Bible and the Ancient Near East Pre-sented to Samuel E.  Loewenstamm, ed. Y. Avishur and J. Blau (Jerusalem: E. Rubinstein's Publishing House, 1978), 1:183-205 (Hebrew); J.J. Rabinowitz, art. emfae, in aqwjxmfudje oxyaj{  2:813-816.  B.L. Eichler, art. "Loan" in Harper's Dictionary of the Bible (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985), pp. 571-572.

 7. Exod. 23:25-26;  Deut. 24:12-13, 17; Amos 2:8; Prov. 20:16; 27:13;  Job 22:6. The  Jewish Ketubbah stipulates that a wife may collect her marriage settlement from all of her husband's possessions, "even from the cloak on [his] shoulders" (Maimonides, emlf{ jbfn, 4:33). E.G. Kraeling, The Brooklyn Museum Aramaic Papyri, no. 11:11, also mentions clothing among objects that may be seized in satisfaction of a debt. In the latter cases, as in Amos 2:6, the clothing is not necessarily a night wrap of relatively little value.

     8. Similarly, Job criticizes those who distrain the widow's ox and the Laws of Hammurabi forbid the distraint of oxen and grain. See Job 24:3; Laws of Hammurabi 113, 241 (see G.R. Driver and J.C. Miles, The Babylonian Laws [Oxford: Clarendon, 1955], 1:210, 214f.).

 9. While I was preparing this paper for publication, Prof. Mayer Rabinowitz, Librarian of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, kindly called my attention to S. Y. Friedman's recent volume {mofd syfk. uyx ezfly a{ eafoqjp. bbmj bba owjsa uyx zzj (Jerusalem: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1990). There (p. 414) I found that Friedman had already noted the similarity of the passage to the Yavneh-Yam inscription, and that S.J. Berman had noted it earlier (see below, n. 43).

 10. P. B.M. 6 end (p. 10a). The text is cited from the Escorial manuscript published in E.M. Rosenthal - S. Lieberman, Yerushalmi Neziqin (Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1983), p. 69.

 11. Yalqut to Prov. 2:20 (sec. 832); cf. the parallel passage in B. B.M. 83a. For variants see Friedman; E.E. Urbach, hg"m. uyxj aofqf{ fdsf{ (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1971), p. 291. Much of the information that follows is based on Friedman, pp. 413-422.

 12. See B. B.M. 82b-83a and 99b; Friedman, p. 420.

 13. In a paraphrase of the account of the Babylonian Talmud in a medieval ethical treatise, Rav begins his response to the question "Is this the law?" by saying: "Legally they should pay you for the jug, but..." (Israel Al-Naqawa, Menorat HaMaor, ed. H.G. Enelow [New York: Bloch, 1932], p. 167).

 14. The most important variant to the account in the Babylonian Talmud is the addition of "Yes" at the beginning of Rav's answers to one or both of Rabbah bar bar Hannah's questions, "Is this the law?" (the variant appears in the printed editions and in some manuscripts; see above, n. 11; against it see Urbach, p. 291; Friedman, p. 418; it is also absent in the Meiri ad loc.). This reading implies that supererogation (muqjn ozfy{ edjp) is, in the circumstances in question, not only advisable but obliga-tory. See Friedman, p. 417, n. 387; Urbach, pp. 291-292; M. Silberg, Principia Talmudica (Jerusalem: Hebrew University Students' Press, 1964), pp. 127-131; S. J. Berman. "Lifnim Mishurat Hadin II," Journal of Jewish Studies 28 (1977):191-192; E. Berkovits, Not in Heaven (New York: KTAV, 1983), pp. 27-28.

 15. For the subject in general see M. Elon, art. "Pledge," EJ 13:636-644.

 16. Ritva in zjie oxfbw{ (New York: M.P. Press, 1972) ad loc.; Nachmanides, hdfzj eyob"p II (New York: Feldheim, 1960) ad loc.

 17. The main manuscript traditions identify the employer as Rabbah bar Rab Huna or Rabbah bar bar Hana, both Babylonian Amoraim, which would locate the incident in Babylonia. One group of readings, however, identifies him as Rabbah bar Hana, who was associated with Rav in both Israel and Babylonia (see art. "Rabbah bar Hana," EJ 13:1441), which means that the incident could have taken place in either land. See Friedman, pp. 414-417.