י״ח באב ה׳תשע״ז (August 10, 2017)

Sanhedrin 25a-b: Gamblers and Thieves

The Mishna on yesterday’s daf listed people who are disqualified as witnesses in a Jewish court, because they are involved in activities that are forbidden by . Included in the list were mafriḥei yonim – “people who make birds fly.” What was this activity and why would it disqualify a witness?

The Gemara offers two explanations for this. One approach is to explain that it is pigeon racing; the other approach suggests that it is ara – that is, training a pigeon to entice other birds to follow it. The Ran explains that these two reasons are dependent on how we define the underlying problem with gambling. The Mishna taught that a mesaḥek bekubbiyya – a dice player – is disqualified from testifying in court. Rami bar Ḥama taught that the problem with a dice player is one of asmakhta (inconclusive consent) – when gambling, neither side thinks that he will lose which will lead to a situation where the winner takes the loser’s money against his will. It is possible that in different types of betting players recognize different levels of possibility that they might lose. The Mishna therefore needs to mention different types of gambling separately. Rav Sheshet, on the other hand, taught that the problem with a dice player is that he is eino osek be-yishuvo shel olam – that someone who makes his living by gambling is not involved in productive occupations that demand hard work (and therefore may not be scrupulous about someone else’s money). This explanation applies equally to dice playing and pigeon racing, so according to this approach we must have an alternative explanation for the case of mafriḥei yonim.

The practice of ara – where a hunter trains his animals to entice others to return with it – would be permissible in settings where the animal brings wild animals back to its owner. The problem comes when the trained bird entices domesticated birds to return with it. Those domesticated birds that grow up in dovecotes are considered to be the property of the person who raises them – at least on a rabbinic level. Thus, someone who lives in a city or another populated area and trains his birds to bring home other birds, is assumed to be a thief and cannot be trusted to testify in court.

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