When a person is missing – e.g. he has been taken captive – how should the court deal with his property in order to guarantee that it will be well cared for?
Our Gemara brings two opinions on this matter. According to Shmuel, the court invites a relative to tend the captive’s field, while Rav forbids doing so. According to Rav we are concerned lest the relative – knowing that the true owner may return at any time – believes that there is nothing for him to gain, and will not take good care of the field. Shmuel argues that the relative knows that he will minimally receive a percentage like a share-cropper, so it is in his interest to care for the field properly.
Regarding this disagreement, the Gemara quotes a baraita where Rabbi Eliezer interprets the Heavenly curse (Shemot 22:23) “My wrath shall wax hot, and I will kill you with the sword; and your wives shall be widows, and your children fatherless” to mean that widows will be unable to remarry and children will be unable to work their fathers’ fields, because the man’s ultimate fate would be unclear. At first glance, this seems to support Rav’s position that relatives are not given a missing person’s field. Rava argues that the sons will be given the field to work and that the baraita means that they will not be allowed to sell the fields.
When Rav Sheshet applied the simple meaning of the baraita to an actual case that took place in Neharde’a, forbidding a missing man’s children from tending his field, Rav Amram asked why he did not accept Rava’s interpretation and allow them to work the field. Rav Sheshet said in return “perhaps you are from Pumbedita where they thread an elephant through the eye of a needle?”
During the early period of the amora’im, two academies developed in Bavel – Sura and Pumbedita. From its inception, the yeshiva in Sura followed the method of study that was popular in Israel, which focused on wide-ranging literacy in the written and oral Torah. The yeshiva in Pumbedita focused more on Talmudic analysis and intensive study. As Rav Amram’s teacher, Rav Sheshet knew where he was from, and the question “perhaps you are from Pumbedita” was a rhetorical question indicating Rav Sheshet’s disdain for this type of learning.