SALT - Sunday, 24 Av 5776 - August 28, 2016

  • Rav David Silverberg

            The Torah in Parashat Re’ei introduces the obligation of shemitat kesafim, which requires lenders to cancel outstanding debts with the close of the shemitta year.  In formulating this obligation, the Torah writes, “…shamot kol ba’al masheh yado” – “every creditor must withhold his hand” (15:2).

            Rav Yaakov Mecklenberg, in his Ha-ketav Ve-ha’kabbala, finds it significant that the Torah speaks of shemitat kesafim in reference to the lender’s “hand.”  The word “yad” (“hand”), Rav Mecklenberg notes, is used not only to mean “hand,” but also to denote power and control.  In Sefer Shoftim (1:35), for example, we read that the tribe of Yosef exerted dominion over the Emorite clans living in its territory and levied taxes upon them, and the verse states, “Va-tikhbad yad beit Yosef” – describing the power of Yosef’s “yad” over the Emorites.  Likewise, the word “yad” is used many times as a reference to legal possession.  Accordingly, Rav Mecklenberg suggests that the phrase “shamot kol ba’al masheh yado” refers to the lender’s breaking his control over the borrower.  Borrowers are, in a sense, subservient to the lender, as expressed most prominently, perhaps, in the law of shibud nekhasim – the lean that lenders hold over borrowers’ property.  The Torah establishes that this relationship of control and dominion is broken during the shemita year.

            Rav Mecklenberg advances this theory to support the halakhic tradition which views the law of shemitat kesafim as permanently cancelling debts.  As Rav Mecklenberg cites, there were those who suggested interpreting the text differently, as referring to the temporary suspension of debt collection – essentially, a mandated, one-year extension of loans, similar to the temporary suspension of agricultural activity which is observed in the shemita year.  One of arguments advanced by Rav Mecklenberg in dismissing this reading is the implication of the word “yad,” which connotes a severing of all bonds of control exerted over borrowers, thus suggesting the permanent cancellation of debts.

            Additionally, this reading of the word “yado” expresses the broader theme of equality that features prominently in the laws of shemita.  Once in seven years, we are reminded that as the land belongs to the Almighty, we are all, essentially, equal.  Therefore, as the Torah discusses in Parashat Behar, all agricultural lands and produce are declared ownerless during the shemita year, and all property is returned to its original owner, such that nobody ends up wealthier or poorer than anybody else.  For the same reason, all servants are freed, reminding us that ultimately, we are all servants of the Almighty and thus do not have the right to exert control over one another.  Rav Mecklenberg’s explanation of shemitat kesafim demonstrates how this mitzva, too, expresses this theme of shemita, as it is intended to break the lender’s hold over the borrower, reminding us that we are all God’s servants and fully and exclusively under His control and authority.