Humans as Co-creators: Co-owners as Well?

A Talmudic legal parable illustrates that, although they may have improved the natural world, humans do not own it. We may transcend nature, but we are also part of it.

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A Legal Parable

The relations between God the Master, man the yetzirah-creator, and nature may be clarified further by referring to the Halakhah concerning the relationships between owner, material, and artisan. The Mishnah discusses the case of a man (owner) who gave some material to an artisan to fashion it. The artisan, instead of repairing, spoiled the object. The law is that the artisan must pay the amount of the damages to the owner.

The question then arises in the [Babylonian Talmud] (Bava Kama 98b): What is this object, which the owner gave over to the artisan, and the damages for which the latter must compensate the owner? Clearly, if it was a finished vessel, and the artisan broke it, the latter must pay the difference in value. But if the owner gave raw material to the worker, asking that he fashion it into a complete vessel, and the artisan did so, but then broke the very vessel he made, is the artisan obligated, in such a case, too, to compensate the owner for the difference in value between a perfect vessel and a broken one, or is he free of obligation since the broken vessel is no less in value than the raw material with which he began?

Who Owns "Improved" Material?  The Debate Raged On

The question was in controversy amongst both Tannaim and Amora'im [i.e., for more than half a millennium, from the first century before the common era through the composition of the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds]. Some held that uman koneh b’shevah kelim, that the artisan has a monetary right in the vessel by virtue of the improvement he effected in it in transforming it from, for instance, mere planks into a table. If the table belongs, then, to the artisan, he cannot be held responsible to pay the owner of the planks for damages to that table if he should later break it.

Others disagree: the improvement in the material is the property of the original owner, and if the artisan later destroyed the completed object, he injured the owner and must compensate him. Most authorities decide the law in favor of the latter opinion: it is the original owner of the raw material who has proprietary rights in the completed artifact, not the artisan who invested his fabricative talents. The explanation for the artisan’s legal responsibility for the finished product is contained in a Tannaitic [i.e. early, from the time of the teachers cited in the Mishnah] source: The artisan is to be considered a shomer sakhar or paid trustee for the article he fashioned, and which belongs to the original owner, and as such he must pay for the object if he damaged it (Tosefta Bava Kama, ch. 2).

What we learn from this, then, is that the artisan is paid by the owner for two functions: for improving the material by fashioning a vessel out of it, and for watching over and protecting that vessel once it is completed. This artifact which he created with his own hands, over which he labored with the sweat of his brow, into which he put his remarkable talents, this vessel must now be guarded by him for the owner from any damage it sustains in the course of his trusteeship over it. This is so because, the halakhah decides, the artisan has no proprietary right in the article he created. It simply does not belong to him.

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Rabbi Norman Lamm

Rabbi Norman Lamm, Ph.D., served more than a quarter of a century as President of Yeshiva University and of its Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. He is the author of The Shema: Spirituality and Law in Judaism and Seventy Faces: Articles of Faith.