SALT - Thursday, 28 Av 5776 - September 1, 2016

  • Rav David Silverberg

            The Mishna in Masekhet Shevi’it (10:8) establishes that although a creditor is forbidden from demanding repayment of a loan after the shemita year, as the Torah annuls outstanding debts with the close of shemita, a debtor may offer to repay the loan, and the creditor may accept it.  The law of shemitat kesafim (the annulment of debts after shemita) differs in this regard from the prohibition of ribit (interest), which is forbidden even the borrower agrees to the terms of the interest.  When it comes to shemitat kesafim, the borrower is allowed to magnanimously offer to pay the cancelled debt, and, in fact, the next Mishna teaches that borrowers are encouraged to do so.

            Rav Shimon Raphael Hirsch, in his Torah commentary (Parashat Re’ei, 15:2), elaborates on the implications of this halakha and how it affects our understanding of the fundamental nature of shemitat kesafim.  He explains that the Torah’s intent in cancelling debts after shemita is not that generous lenders should lose their money.  The goal is that borrowers will fully repay the debts without feeling controlled by, and subservient to, their lenders.  Rav Hirsch notes that throughout the text of the Torah’s command of shemitat kesafim, it repeatedly uses variations of the terms “rei’a” (“comrade”) and “ach” (“brother”).  The idea behind this law is that creditors should not assert authority or control over their debtors, and should instead treat them as friends and brothers, fully trusting that they will repay their debts without the need for pressure or legal action.  Rav Hirsch writes:

 

The creditor…who by virtue of his legal claim on his neighbor had become a person in power, holding him in his hand, renounces forever his right to assert that power.  But the debtor remains forever morally in his debt and duty-bound to repay him… Yea, it is by no means the tendency of the Torah to release people who can pay from their moral duty of discharging their moral obligations, and from such people the creditor can expect…that they will make no use of the releasing Shemita favor…

 

With the passing of the Shemita period all debts which have been contracted are reduced to moral obligations only, the settlement of which is left to the time and convenience which the debtor himself settles.  Instead of the depression with which his debt loads him, he feels himself elevated by the confidence which the Torah places in him and he will make the repayment of what was a legal obligation and is now left entirely to his own free will, a matter of honor.

 

            On this basis, we might suggest an interpretation of the Torah’s stern prohibition against refusing to grant loans out of concern that they will be cancelled.  The Torah warns, “Beware, lest you harbor the evil thought of saying: ‘The seventh year, the shemita year, is drawing near,’ and you will look askance at your brother the pauper, and you will not give to him.”  The phrase “ve-ra’a einekha” (“you will look askance”) is commonly understood as a reference to stinginess, but alternatively, it might refer to suspicion and a negative perspective.  In light of Rav Hirsch’s approach to shemitat kesafim, we might explain that the Torah strictly forbids refusing loan requests out of concern of shemita because the purpose of shemitat kesafim is to engender an atmosphere of trust and goodwill.  The objective of this halakha is to encourage parties to work together without the need for litigation and conflict, to conduct business in a spirit of trust and good faith.  And so just as lenders may not take legal action to force repayment after shemita, and should instead expect the borrowers to repay without legal action, similarly, prospective lenders should not refuse to grant loans before shemita out of suspicion that repayment will not be made.  They are to place their trust in the borrowers and view them as reliable and responsible members of the community, thereby engendering a spirit of goodwill throughout Jewish society.