The Torah in Parashat Re’ei commands those capable of lending to the poor to extend loans, and issues a special warning not to withhold loans in advance of the shemita year: “Guard yourself, lest an evil thought be in your hearts, saying: ‘The seventh year, the shemita year, is coming’ – and you will look askance at your brother, the pauper, and not give him” (15:9). If a prospective lender refuses to grant a loan under these circumstances, the Torah says, this will be considered “sinful” (“ve-haya vekha cheit”).
The straightforward reading of the verse is that it refers to a prospective lender who would reject a loan request shortly before the shemita year due to the law of shemitat kesafim – the cancellation of outstanding debts at the close of the shemita year. Naturally, somebody approached for a loan who knows that the debt will soon be halakhically annulled will likely be afraid of losing his money, and will thus turn down the request. It is in response to this concern, it appears, that the Torah issues this special warning to prospective lenders to trust in God’s promise of reward for fulfilling this mitzva, and to extend a loan despite the likelihood of it never being repaid.
However, Rav Yaakov Mecklenberg, in his Ha-ketav Ve-ha’kabbala, notes that this reading seems difficult in light of options offered by Halakha to circumvent shemitat kesafim. Specifically, if one lends money on collateral, the debt may be collected after shemita. Since the debt is, in a sense, already collected, in the sense that the lender has something in his possession that could be used as payment, this loan is not subject to the law of shemitat kesafim. And, the Torah in this context formulates the requirement for prospective lenders to grant loans with the phrase, “ve-ha’aveit ta’avitenu” (15:8), which refers to lending on collateral. (See 24:10-13, where the word “avot” is used in reference to an object taken as collateral.) If the Torah specifically speaks of lending on collateral, there is no reason for concern that a prospective lender will refuse a loan request out of fear of its cancellation after shemita. Moreover, Rav Mecklenberg writes, Halakha allows extending a loan on condition that it is not cancelled with the close of the shemita year, offering yet another option for circumventing the law of shemitat kesafim. Why, then, would prospective lenders be reluctant to extend loans as the shemita year approached?
Rav Mecklenberg answers that lenders would refuse to lend before shemita because the agricultural laws of shemita guarantee that the poor will be properly cared for during that year. All agricultural lands are rendered ownerless throughout the shemita year, and thus the poor have equal access to food. Hence, as the shemita year approaches, lenders may refuse to lend because they fail to see a need for charitable loans. Since the poor will soon enjoy rights to partake of any produce throughout the Land of Israel, they do not need to borrow money. The Torah warns against this mindset, Rav Mecklenberg explains, because there are legitimate reasons why a person in need would request a loan before the onset of shemita. Rav Mecklenberg notes in particular the possibility that some people do not wish to live off the hard work of others, despite the Torah’s explicit permission to do so, and prefer instead to launch their own enterprise, for which they need a loan. The Torah warns against looking with suspicion upon a poor person’s loan request before shemita and assuming that the request is inappropriate, as there are, in truth, legitimate reasons for such a request.