This week I had an inspiring encounter with a person. Without going into too many details, I had given this person a significant amount of money without any record of the matter and they now owed me the money. The person could have easily walked away from our relationship as they were leaving the country and I would have had no recourse, but instead I was repaid every single penny that I was owed. I was very pleasantly surprised and also inspired by another person doing the right thing.
In contrast, I recently met another person who was intentionally devaluing his home (by not cutting his grass and not painting the house) so as to force the bank to the lower the value of his home and thereby refinance for him at a lower price. He was also not repaying his mortgage loan because he thought that through this and other shenanigans he could position himself to get even more money from the bank. I was not inspired by this encounter.
When someone lends us money we have both a legal obligation and a moral obligation to repay the loan. At the time of the loan we are so grateful for the loan, but as we get farther and farther away, our gratefulness often tends to flatten out and that is one of the reasons people will sometimes shirk their responsibilities to repay a loan. But the repayment of a loan is evidence of who we are as people. When we repay a loan, it is a statement that goes to the heart and soul of who we are.
But if repaying a loan is so important then why does the Torah tell us that under certain circumstances we don’t even have to repay our loans?
This week’s parashah teaches us a law about loans and repaying debts as it relates to the shemitah (sabbatical) year. The upcoming year, starting with Rosh Hashanah, 5775, is the seventh year of a seven-year cycle, and is thus a shemitah year. The most well known feature of a shemitah year is that we are not allowed to work the land of Israel. But the Torah also tells us another feature of the shemitah year: all debts must be forgiven.
The Torah states (Devarim, 15:2):
“ve-zeh devar hashemitah shemot, kol baal masheh yado asher yasheh be-reieihu lo yigos et rei-eihu…
And this is the manner of the release; to release the hand of every creditor from what he lent his friend; he shall not exact from his friend or his brother, because time of the release for the Lord has arrived.”
The basic understanding of this verse is that as a result of the shemitah year any money that one Jew owes another Jew is forgiven and need not be repaid. Unlike the agricultural aspects of shemitah, which only take effect on produce of the land of Israel, this law applies even outside of Israel. Thus, if I lent you one hundred dollars, for example, the shemitah year nullifies that loan.
When are the debts cancelled? Although there is a difference of opinion about this, most commentaries understand that the loans are cancelled at the end of the shemitah year; that would mean that the debts are cancelled before Rosh Hashanah 5776 and not before Rosh Hashanah 5775. (See Ramban Deavarim 15:2, and also, Rambam, Laws of Shemitah, 9:24.)
So does this mean that if we lent out money we have no recourse at the end of the shemitah year and thus no ability to reclaim the money?
The short answer is, “no.”
Back in the first century (BCE), Hillel Hazaken instituted a pruzbul (Gittin, 36a-b). Hillel saw that since people were worried that they were not going to be repaid their loans, they were afraid to lend money in the first place and they were therefore transgressing a different commandment, the biblical commandment to lend money to a friend (also from this week’s parashah, 15:9). The pruzbul is a legal maneuver whereby the person who is owed the money declares that all outstanding debts are hereby turned over to the Beth Din for collection. The Beth Din then declares that the creditor is allowed to collect his or her money.
There is a dispute amongst our modern authorities as to when is the proper time to do a pruzbul, but according to most authorities it should be done before the end of the shemitah year.
There is a great deal to discuss when it comes to studying the pruzbul. We could focus on the mechanics of how it works legally. We could also focus on how it was once possible for the rabbis to institute such a daring and revolutionary reform, whereas today our tradition seems to have entirely lost that ability. We could discuss whether this conservative approach to our tradition is on the whole a positive or a negative.
For now, I want to simply address the major question: Why in the first place did the Torah make the law that our loans are forgiven at the end of the shemitah year? And if a pruzbul is so important why did the Torah not institute a pruzbul to begin with?
There are a number of theories why the Torah has the concept of annulling debts in the Shemitah year.
According to Sefer Hachinuch (477): the purpose of the law is to teach us not to steal. Our love of money sometimes motivates us to steal. So by forgiving our loans we are demonstrating that our desire for money does not control us. For if “even in a case where a person has loaned his own money, the Torah tells him he must leave it in the hands of the borrower when the shemita year comes, how much more so must one not steal or covet that which belongs to someone else.”
I learned a second approach when I studied in yeshivat hakibbutz hadati with Rav Mitch Heifetz. Rav Mitch was one of the ideological leaders of the kibbutz hadati movement. After making aliyah, he lived on a kibbutz his whole life and as an old-timer in the kibbutz movement, he was a big proponent of the ideals of social equality and neo-socialism. He taught us that the reason the loans are forgiven and the reason for shemitah as a whole is because the Torah really wants to even the socio-economic playing field. All the poor people are given a chance to restart their lives every seven years. The shemitah year is the great equalizer in society and for this reason loans are forgiven.
But the answer that I find most inspiring is the suggestion of Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch in his Torah commentary (ad. loc.). Rav Hirsch points out that there is a big difference between the forgiveness of loans at the end of the shemitah year and another similar law, the prohibition against lending money with interest.
According to the Torah one Jew cannot lend or borrow money with interest from another Jew. Let’s say, a person wants to pay interest on a loan even though it is not required. This too, is a sin. It is a sin to lend money on interest and to pay money on interest. (In modern times observant Jews who are active bankers are able to navigate this prohibition with some skillful legal maneuvering.)
However, when it comes to paying back a debt that was forgiven by the shemitah year there is no such prohibition. The Mishnah (Sheveit, 10:8) says that if a borrower wants to pay back the loan after a shemitah year, we tell him that the loan was forgiven. But if he insists on paying back the loan then we accept the money (yikabel mi-mennu). Rambam goes a step further and says a debtor who pays back his loan after a shemitah year has done a great thing, “[Whenever] anyone returns a debt [despite the fact] that the Sabbatical year has passed, the spirits of our Sages are gratified because of him, ruach chachamim noche heimenu” (Shemitah, 9:28).
Thus, the ideal situation is for a person to pay back his or her loan, even though the Torah does not command us to do so. Well, why would we pay it back if we are not commanded to do so? Simple: because it is the right thing to do!
According to Rav Hirsch the purpose of the shemitah year is for us to learn to do the right thing even in situations where we are not legally obligated to act in that manner.
Rav Hirsch understands that the forgiveness of loans at the end of the shemitah years comes as a direct result of the refraining from any agricultural work for the entire shemitah year. Since the ancient Jew person would not be engaged in their normal occupation of farming, they would have plenty of extra time on their hands. How would they fill that time? With Torah study and spiritual activities designed to bring them closer to Hashem.
This is what Hirsch writes:
“With the passing of the shemitah period all debts which have been contracted are reduced to moral obligations only…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 repayment of what was a legal obligation….”
This is a strange and inspiring idea: the reason that the Torah cancels our legal obligation to repay our debts is to teach us that we can become so close to God throughout the course of the shemitah year that we will want to repay our debts even though we are not legally obligated. The purpose of shemitah is to teach us how to fulfill our moral obligations even when they are not our legal obligations.
This is the idea in its purest form. But when Hillel saw that people were not lending money, he retained the pure form of the idea but gave the lenders some insurance via a pruzbul. But don’t think for a moment that the pure form of the idea has been replaced.
The purpose of shemitah is to teach us how to fulfill our moral obligations even when they are not our legal obligations.
The shemitah year is going to start in a little more than a month. Most of us are not farmers, but all of us should still try to fulfill the pure, spirit of the shemitah year.
Let’s make this our shemitah challenge.
Let us devote more time in the shemitah year to spiritual activities, like Torah study, davening, and acts of charity for the purpose of learning the importance our moral obligations.
The question we must all ask ourselves as Rosh Hashanah comes upon us and the shemitah year draws close is: How can we spend our time in the coming year in a way that advances our spiritual goals? Ruach chachamim nocheh heimenu, the spirit of God rests upon someone who pays back his loan even when he is not obligated to do so. How can we grow during the shemitah year of 5775 to realize that we must fulfill our moral obligations even when they are not our legal obligations?
Sign Up for Weekly Torah Email!