Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Tuesday's Thoughts on the Daf - Bava Metzia 52

Bava Metzia 52 begins with the continuation of a mishna from 51b, dealing with fraud in relation to currency. The mishna offers a dispute as to how much of the coin must be missing before the coin is not acceptable for use in commerce.

As part of its discussion of the mishna, the gemara asks what can be done with the coin which has now worn down beyond use in commerce. The gemara then brings a beraisa on Bava Metzia 52a which states that the coin cannot be sold to a merchant, but can be pierced and hung on a pendant for one's son or daughter. Later on 52b, the gemara questions this beraisa as another beraisa indicates that the owner of the coin cannot pierce it for jewelry for his child. The gemara resolves the contradiction and states that the coin cannot be pierced from the side and used for jewelry, as an unscrupulous person might grind off the pierced edge and attempt to pass it in commerce. However, where the piercing was in the middle, the coin could be used for jewelry.

The gemara brought back memories of a belt buckle that my father had when I was a child which contained old coins and a watch which had been made from an old coin. I wondered how this could be done as I thought that US law forbade defacing currency.

I did a little research and found that under 18 USC §331, whoever "fraudulently alters, defaces, mutilates, impairs, diminishes, falsifies, scales, or lightens any of the coins coined at the mints of the United States" is subject to penalty. In 1882, the Supreme Court of the United States in U.S. v. Lissner, 12 F. 840 (1882) ruled that a coin which was punched and mutilated, and an appreciable amount of silver removed from it before being refilled was illegal, but where the hole was punched with a sharp instrument, leaving all the silver in the coin, the act was not forbidden.

The Lissner decision tracks the logic of the gemara and explains why people are able to make the jewelry from old coins. The gemara bars the use of worn down coins and prevents making jewelry from them when the recipient could easily pass them off as legitimate. However, when the coin is properly punched and is obviously not going to be recirculated, the act is permissible.

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