Parshat Behar contains some fascinating financial laws. The mitzvah to give a loan without charging interest is particularly intriguing.
The Torah says in parshat Behar : “if your brother becomes impoverished and his means falter in your proximity, you shall strengthen him so that he can live with you. Do not take from him interest and increase; and you shall fear your Gd and let your brother live with you.”
The Hebrew terms employed here are so interesting : “al tikach m’ito neshek v tarbit”. A neshek is a bite – which is so descriptive, as if the borrower feels the pain of a bite when he must pay interest – and tarbit, today called ribis, is gain by the creditor. So we see from this that there are actually two distinct prohibitions included in the ban – one: not to harm the borrower, and two: not to benefit the creditor.
Loaning with interest, called usury in English, is prohibited seven times in Tanach. Some examples include:
Shemot 22:24 – if you lend money to any of my people, even to the poor with you, you shall not be to him as a creditor, neither shall you lay upon him interest.
Devarim 23:19 – you shall not lend upon interest to your brother – interest of money or interest of food. To a foreigner you can lend upon interest but to your brother you shall not lend upon interest.
The book of Yechezkiel (18:13) classifies usury as being among the worst sins. Yechezkiel denounces it as an abomination and portrays usurers as people who have shed blood.
Sefer Tehillim (15:5) praises the person that does not commit usury – “ he that does not put out his money on interest shall never be moved.”
The obvious question is, what exactly is the problem with charging interest? It certainly seems fair enough! First of all, if I lend you my money, I have the risk of never being repaid. Surely this risk entitles me to seek security for the loan and to protect myself from loss?
Secondly, for the duration of the loan, I am at a distinct disadvantage – I lose the right to use that money if I need it, I lose the opportunity to use or invest it and increase my wealth, I cannot use it to secure myself or my name, and I cannot gift it to anyone. Why shouldn’t this loss of use and benefit of my own money entitle me to some gain? Why does the Torah forbid what seems like a fair gain to the lender?
Two other halachot deepen the mystery: halacha forbids the charging of interest even to an extremely wealthy person who can easily afford the interest charge, and the Halacha also forbids charging interest to a person who would eagerly agree to a loan with an interest charge.
So what IS the problem with charging interest? Why is the Halacha so firmly against it?
Different answers have been offered by Chazal –
* this is a way of promoting social justice
* this halacha shows trust in Hashem that things will work out
* it is a demonstration of the special chesed we do for members of B’nai Yisrael because we are all extended family. This is also why we don’t have to extend this special, familial chesed to non-Jews.
*some commentators say that there actually IS interest earned – the interest is the pleasure we get from helping our fellow Jew. How gorgeous is that?
In any event, it is an amazing concept, being mandated to sacrifice one’s own financial security for the sake of another. Yet in order to really appreciate the magnitude of this commandment, we need to put the advent of the admonishment against charging interest into historical context.
In the ancient Near Eastern world the majority of the early religious systems and the legal codes that developed from them did not forbid usury. It was completely legitimate to charge interests on loans in those societies, whether with money or food. In some of these early societies from 5000 BC, such as those of the Mesopotamians, Hittites, Phoenicians and Egyptians, legal interest on loans was fixed by the state.
Among the Sumarians, the culture we believe Avraham Avinu descended from, loans were usually given with interest attached, often at the rate of 20% per annum. This 20% interest rate is almost always the one stated in surviving Sumerian contract tablets. Interestingly, the 20% interest rate was evidently still well known in first century Judaism, as it is the first interest rate to which the Babylonian Talmud refers. (Loans and Interest in the Pentateuch, Order of Merchants LLC)
Sumerian law did provide for a more mutually profitable arrangement, in which a lender and a debtor make contractual arrangements to become partners in a business venture, with the lender agreeing to invest in the venture, and the debtor agreeing to manage the venture. This vehicle has characteristics of both a load and a trust, for the lender’s financial share in the venture is effectively the return on the loan, and the debtor’s financial share in the venture is effectively a wage. Similarly, the Code of Hammurabi contains regulations attempting to govern the use of these types of contracts.
Against the backdrop of this widespread socially accepted, government enforced culture of usury there comes a sudden dramatic historical change. The Torah, against all expectation, forbids loaning with interest to a fellow Jew.
Evidently, the concept of secured loans existed at this time, as Sefer Shemot expressly prohibits using a particular garment as the security for a loan. The garment was a large cloth square. It was used by the poor for covering themselves while sleeping and was needed to survive the cold nights. If this garment was offered as security, the very life of the debtor could have been put at risk.
The Torah expresses a similar concern for the security of the debtor’s life in prohibiting the use of a millstone as security. The millstone was used to make flour, and would be required for the manufacture of bread, a staple food among the poor. If the millstone had been offered as security, the debtor would have been at risk of starvation.
The Christian church in the Middle Ages adapted the law as it stands in the Torah, but understood the prohibition of charging interest to “thy brother” as referring to other Christians and the “foreigner” to non-Christians. Therefore, Jews were allowed to become money-lenders, with disastrous results, as Jewish history demonstrates. (I will return to this idea in a moment)
Incredibly, despite the challenging nature of the Biblical commandment against usury, the Talmudic Rabbis extended the biblical laws against usury:
* Rabbinic laws prohibit the borrower from bestowing any benefit on the lender to the extent that it forbidden even to greet him if it was not his usual practice to greet him, or even to thank him for the loan.
*According to these Rabbis of the Talmud, the prohibition applies to the borrower as well as to the lender, that is, it is not only forbidden to lend on interest but also to borrow on interest. The witnesses to the transaction also offend against the law, as does the scribe who draws up the bond of indebtedness. The laws against usury are treated in detail in chapter 5 of Babylonian Talmud tractate Bava Metzi‘a. The general principle laid down in this connection is “any reward for waiting is forbidden,” meaning, it is forbidden for a lender to be rewarded by the borrower for “waiting” for the return of his money. (Rabbi Louis Jacobs – Usury and Moneylending in Judaism) The Shulchan Aruch does record exemptions for certain charities and similarly allows for the borrowing of money on terms involving interest repayments when a life is in danger.
*The Mishnah states that it is not permissible to withhold the whole of something such as a field, for which part of the selling price has already been paid, because any income arising from possession of the entity would effectively be interest on the outstanding amount. However, the Mishnah does permit the refusal to hand over something for which only partial payment has been received if it had been sold on the terms that payment would be made by a certain date and that date has passed. In English law, the mortgage was invented to take advantage of this exception. So anyone with a mortgage can thank the Torah!
* If witnesses support a claim that it had been agreed to repay a debt by a certain date, but they are proved to be lying and the correct repayment date to be a different date, according to the Mishnah, the false witnesses must pay the amount accrued due to the difference in value of the thing between the two dates.
*The Mishnah forbids the drawing of interest and dividends from investments, arguing that people should instead buy land and draw income from it. The Mishnah also counts gifts, which aim to encourage the offering of loans, to be a form of interest, paid in advance; similarly, gifts given in thanks for a loan, are another form of interest, according to the Mishnah, even if the loan is repaid when the gift is offered. The Mishna even goes so far as to forbid the loaning of things other than money since by the time the loan had to be repaid, the market value of the loaned thing could have risen, which effectively constituted interest; likewise, the exchange of labor between two individuals was forbidden by the Mishnah, if the work by one of the individuals would be more laborious than the other.
*The Mishnah forbids arrangements where a supplier gives a product to a shopkeeper to sell in return for a portion of the profit, since it views the supplier as effectively loaning the product to the shopkeeper, while ignoring the fact that the shopkeeper takes on the risk of theft, depreciation, and accidents.
Keep in mind that the vast majority of the ancient world supported and widely instituted the concept of charging interest on loans. The Torah’s prohibition against it was completely revolutionary! It shook up the old world order, and the concept spread from the Torah and the Jews to the surrounding culture, and eventually the world at large. In a very short time the concept of usury became almost universally regarded as abhorrent -with condemnation against usury found in the New Testament, the Church, Islam and the Koran, and secular societies all over the world. The Rabbis of the Mishna were far ahead of the (moral) times!
Some examples of this change in attitude towards usury include:
- Pope Benedict XIV calls usury “sinful” in his encyclical Vix Pervenit
- In the Divine Comedy Dante places usurers in the inner ring of the Seventh Circle of Hell.
- In the 18th century usury was used as a metaphor for crime in itself.
- Charles Dickens’ character Daniel Quilip in The Old Curiosity Shop is a contemptible usurer.
- Shakespeare’s the Merchant of Venice includes the abhorred antagonist Shylock, a Jewish usurer.
The negative attitude towards usury is reflected even in the Magna Carta, the ancient English constitution from 1215. It states that “if any one has taken anything, whether much or little, by way of loans from Jews, and if he dies before that debt is paid, the debt shall not carry usury so long as the heir is under age, from whomsoever he may hold. And if that debt falls into our hands, we will take only the principle contained in the note.”
In a similar vein, William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England provide that:
“When money is lent on a contract to receive not only the principal sum again, but also an increase by way of compensation for the use, the increase is called interest by those who think it lawful, and usury by those who do not.”
Usury manifests most hideously in the institution of debt-slavery, which is still practiced to this day. In debt slavery, a debtor who is unable to pay a loan can be placed in a situation where by their life and labors are directed to the lender until the debt is considered repaid. The debt can be passed on to the children of the debtor creating multiple generations of slaves and promoting child labor.
Currently, In the United States, the primary legal power to regulate usury rests with the states. Usury laws are state laws that specify the maximum legal interest rate at which loans can be made. Each U.S. state has its own statue which dictates how much interest can be charged before it is considered usurious or unlawful. If a lender charges above the lawful interest rate, a court will not allow the lender to sue to recover the debt because the interest rate was illegal anyway. In some states (such as New York) such loans are voided ab initio, from the beginning.
On a federal level, Congress opted to put a federal criminal limit on interest rates by the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO Statute) Act’s definitions of “unlawful debt”, which make it a federal felony to lend money at an interest rate more than twice the local state usury rate and then try to collect that “unlawful debt”. It is a federal offense to use violence or threats to collect usurious interest (or any other sort) (Extortionate Credit Transactions statute, chapter 42, title 18, U.S. Code). Such activity is referred to as loan sharking. What is fascinating here is that in this instance the government decided to take down the Mafia with sort of “back door” usury legislation rather than just straight out violent crime legislation! We can literally thank the Torah and its prohibition on usury for providing a path to taking down the mafia!
Another interesting note is that there are separate rules applied to most banks concerning usury. The U.S. Supreme Court held unanimously in the 1978 Marquette Nat. Bank of Minneapolis v. First of Omaha Service Corp case that the National Banking Act of 1863 allowed nationally chartered banks to charge the legal rate of interest in their state regardless of the borrower’s state of residence. In 1980, Congress passed the Depository Institutions Deregulation and Monetary Control Act. Among the Act’s provisions, it exempted federally chartered savings banks, installment plan sellers and chartered loan companies from state usury limits. Combined with the Marquette decision that applied to National Banks, this effectively overrode all state and local usury laws.
Some members of Congress have tried to create a federal usury statute that would limit the maximum allowable interest rate, but the measures have not progressed. In July 2010, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act was signed into law by President Obama. The act provides for a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to regulate some credit practices but has no interest rate limit. So it is, in effect, useless legislation.
Many countries have legislation prohibiting or limiting usury. Canada’s Criminal Code limits the interest rate to 60% per year. The law is broadly written and Canada’s courts have often intervened to remove ambiguity. Japan has various laws restricting interest rates. Under civil law, the maximum interest rate is between 15% and 20% per year depending upon the principal amount (larger amounts having a lower maximum rate). Interest in excess of 20% is subject to criminal penalties. And many other countries have similar legislation.
Interestingly, the Torah does allow Jews to lend with interest to non-Jews. (However, even though it may be permissible under Torah law, there has been marked historical tragedy from charging interest even to non-Jews. ) Several ideas have been suggested as to why the Torah allows this:
Rabbi Louis Jacobs writes explains that “In an agrarian society a loan to a poor man to tide him over, for instance, until the harvest or to help him buy farming instruments, was a basic act of human kindness which should be done freely without demanding any return. For the lender to take interest on the loan would be to impoverish the borrower still further. But the “foreigner,” the man who is on a visit to the land of Israel, is not bound by this law. He will take interest on any loans he makes to Israelites so that there can be no obligation for the Israelite not to reciprocate and take interest when lending to him.” Another suggested reason is that the goal of the prohibition of lending with interest to a Jew is to ensure the collective survival of the Jewish people and that Jews are not obliged to extend this charitable approach to outsiders.
Historically, Jews were pushed into the role of money lenders. Remember that the Church interpreted the biblical prohibition against usury to one’s brother to mean that Christians were prohibited from lending with interest to other Christians. Therefore, it was difficult for Christians to get any loans unless they were granted loan with interest from Jews. The Jews meanwhile, could only survive by charging interest on the loans they gave. Furthermore, in the twelfth century, in many places in Europe, as the Jews were ostracized from most professions by local rulers, the Western churches and the guilds , they were pushed into marginal occupations considered socially inferior. These occupations included tax and rent collecting and moneylending. Natural tensions between creditors and debtors were added to social, political, religious, and economic strains. Financial oppression of Jews tended to occur in areas where they were most disliked, and if Jews reacted by concentrating on moneylending to non-Jews, the unpopularity—and so, of course, the pressure—would increase. Thus the Jews became an element in a vicious circle.
The Christians, on the basis of the Biblical rulings, condemned interest-taking absolutely, and from 1179 those who practiced it were excommunicated. Catholic autocrats frequently imposed the harshest financial burdens on the Jews. The Jews reacted by engaging in the one business where Christian laws actually discriminated in their favor, and became identified with the hated trade of moneylending. In England, the departing Crusaders were joined by crowds of debtors in the massacres of Jews at London and York in 1189-1190. In 1275, Edward I of England passed the Statue of the Jewery which made usury illegal and linked it to blasphemy in order to seize the assets of the violators. Scores of English Jews were arrested, 300 were hanged and their property went to the Crown. In 1290, all Jews were expelled from England, and allowed to take only what they could carry; the rest of their property became the Crown’s. Usury was cited as the official reason for the Edict of Expulsion.
*A quick Google search of the terms “Jew” and “usury” will reveal a plethora of bitter anti-Semitism vehemently linking to Jews to abuses of money and all types of evils. Try it. It is truly frightening.
Another issue that arose in regards to loans concerns the halachot of Shmitah.
In the book of Devarim we read:
“This is the law of Shmitah: to release the hand of every creditor from what he lent his friend; he shall not exact from his friend or his brother, because the time of release for the Lord has arrived.” Thus, part of the proper observance of the sabbatical year called Shmitah, includes the forgiveness of all loans. That’s right – all unpaid personal loans become null and void, completely forgiven when the Shmitah year starts.
—-Let’s just pause a moment before diving into this meaty topic of Shmitah and stop and reflect on the absolute breathtaking beauty of Shmitah loan forgiveness. Where else in the world do we find any comparable vehicle for the emancipation of the poor and disadvantaged? Loan forgiveness gives people a real chance to escape eternal debt. While surrounding cultures were practicing debt slavery, into the second and third generation, Jewish law was insisting on loan forgiveness. What pride we should feel to have this ethical code!—-
However, from the perspective of the lender, the situation is not quite as sweet. The generous soul who has lent money without any interest, who is not even allowed to remind his creditor of his debt, now also must forgive the loan entirely when the Shmitah year commences. Not only that, but even if a borrower wishes to repay the debt, the lender can only accept it if he first reminds the borrower that the debt has been cancelled. If the borrower still insists on giving him the money, it can only be accepted as a gift. How many lenders are actually going to agree to those terms? The answer is not as many as the rabbis hoped. Despite the deep ethical and spiritual value in loan forgiveness, practicality often won out, and many people were reluctant to loan money when the Shmitah year was approaching for fear of not being paid back.
The Torah anticipated this trend and actually warns us “Beware lest there be in your heart an unfaithful thought, saying, “The seventh year, the year of release is approaching,” and you will begrudge your needy brother and not give him . . .” and even promises a blessing for obeying these words: “You shall surely give him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him; for because of this the L‑rd, your G‑d, will bless you in all your work and in all your endeavors.” (Devarim 15:9-10) But it was the reality nonetheless that people still were reluctant to give loans because of the shmittah loan forgiveness mandate.
The ensuing history is summarized beautifully in excerpt from chabad.org:
In the first century BCE, Hillel the Elder saw that people were avoiding giving loans as the Shemittah year neared. This posed two problems: 1) The wealthy people were transgressing the Torah prohibition against withholding loans out of fear of Shemittah. 2) The poor people who desperately needed loans had no way to procure them. He came up with a novel solution.
Hillel noted that the Torah tells us that only private debts are canceled by Shemittah: “He shall not exact from his friend or his brother.” If, however, one owes the court (i.e., the community) money, Shemittah does not affect the loan. Based on this rule, he instituted the pruzbul: a mechanism by which debts are transferred to a beit din (religious court). By making a pruzbul, you make your private debts public—and therefore redeemable.
The Talmud explains that nowadays the Shemittah loan amnesty is no longer in effect according to biblical law. Thus, since the Shemittah that we observe today is a rabbinic injunction, Hillel was empowered to circumvent these laws due to pressing need. (Chabad.org)
Later Amoraim expressed their astonishment at the fact that Hillel dared to abrogate the Mosaic institution of the release of all debts every seventh year. There is a major debate in the Talmud whether rabbis have the authority to uproot from the Torah and the issue of prozbul is one of the first examples of this debate being tested. (Greenstone, Julius H. Prosbul. Jewish Encyclopedia. 2002).
Certain Rabbis claim that the Jubilee year is commanded by the Torah only when most Jews are in the Land of Israel. Thus, as they are dispersed around the world, shmitta, like certain other laws, would not be required by the Torah. According to these rabbis, the Great Sanhedrin enacted their own law that while in the Land of Israel Jews must continue to observe shmitta so its observance will not be forgotten (prior to the entire Jewish people’s eventual return to the land of Israel). Thus, if one would agree that shmitta does not apply when Israelites are dispersed, Hillel, great as he was, would not have changed a law of the Torah in order to fit the needs of his time. He and his Beth Din would have enacted a rabbinic exception to a rabbinic law. As the Rambam notes in Shmita V’Yovel chapter 9, when most Jews again live in the Land of Israel and the observance of the sabbatical and jubilee years are Toraitic commandments, the prozbul will no longer be able to be used. According to this theory, Prozbul, like eruv, is a rabbinic exception to a rabbinic enactment.
Amazingly, today one can find the text of the pruzbul online:
Here is the text of the pruzbul:
I give over to you [the beit din] all debts which I have, so that I may collect them any time I wish.
There are two ways to deliver the text to the court:
- a) The simplest and most convenient way is to attend morning prayer services in your local synagogue on the day before Rosh Hashanah. After the services, a hatarat nedarim ceremony is conducted, during which each member of the congregation stands before a beit din consisting of three (or, in certain communities, ten) of his peers, and recites a vow annulment statement. Immediately after finishing the hatarat nedarim, everyone recites the aforementioned pruzbul text, thus orally transmitting all debts to this ad hoc court.
- b) If this is not an option, you can transmit your debts to a beit din in writing. (Chabad websites even enable to be accomplished on line).
Because of the uniqueness of the mitzvah of pruzbul, the Lubavitcher Rebbe encouraged everyone to make the effort to make a pruzbul. In fact, he suggested that even someone who has no collectable debts, and thus has no need for a pruzbul, should symbolically lend a small sum of money to someone else in order to be able to observe the rare and easy rabbinical institution of pruzbul.
According to the strict letter of the law, nowadays one can collect a debt even without the benefit of a pruzbul. The reason? “Since it has become the custom to collect debts, even without a pruzbul, after Shemittah, and the borrower is aware of this custom, it is as if the lender explicitly stipulated that the loan will never be canceled, even by Shemittah. In such an instance, the borrower has taken upon himself an obligation [with the knowledge that] the Torah does not require him to pay, and this is a valid stipulation.” Nevertheless, “Any G‑d-fearing individual should be stringent and make a pruzbul” (Shulchan Aruch Harav, Laws of Loans 35).
Upon making a comparison between secular law and Jewish law concerning Usury, a profound difference between the two systems can be seen. Both legal structures aim to limit usury but the legal reasoning behind the two sets of legislation is completely different. Secular laws and reasoning against usury stem from humanitarian considerations – it’s not nice to harm people with steep interest rates, and from social welfare considerations – in order to have a functioning society, we need people to be able to receive loans. We don’t want loan sharking, we don’t want debt slavery. The halachic system is surely concerned with those things also. But it goes much deeper than that. And here is where the beauty of our system is revealed:
Rabbi Eli Mansour ( Weekly Parsha Insights, Parshat Behar):
“The Keli Yakar (Rav Shlomo Efrayim Luntshitz, 1540-1619) explains that the prohibition against interest has nothing to do with our concern for the borrower’s financial wellbeing. If it did, then it would not apply in cases of a wealthy borrower or if the borrower agrees to pay interest. Rather, the Keli Yakar writes, a person who lends on interest is at risk of losing his faith in G-d as the One who exerts full control over our livelihood. In any profession or business, success is never guaranteed. A person can lose his job or clients, a competitor can get in the way, the product or service can become obsolete, or other things can go wrong. When a person lends on interest, however, he feels secure in his profits. He has the borrower caught in his web, and even if the borrower is unable to pay, the lender can keep the collateral. And so making a living through money lending, the Keli Yakar asserts, does not come with the kind of risk to which the Torah wants us to expose ourselves in regard to our livelihood. We are to feel financial security only through faith, with the knowledge that it is G-d, and only G-d, who provides us with our needs. [my note – like succot!]
For this reason, the Keli Yakar explains, this prohibition applies to both poor and wealthy borrowers: since the idea is to prevent the lender from feeling too confident, the borrower’s financial status is immaterial. And, we now understand why a borrower may not agree to pay interest, as he thereby contributes to the lender’s sense of security.
This also explains why this prohibition is mentioned here, in Parashat Behar, where the Torah speaks at length about the mitzva of Shemita (the Sabbatical year). Shemita marks the ultimate test of faith, requiring a farmer to essentially shut down his business for an entire year, as he must refrain from all agricultural work and allow anyone who wants to take the produce. The farmer must rely on G-d’s promise that the sixth year’s yield will suffice until new produce is planted and harvested after Shemita. One cannot observe Shemita unless he fully believes in G-d’s unlimited ability to provide his sustenance, regardless of his efforts.
These two laws – the prohibition against interest and the law of Shemita – seek to remind us that while we can and must put in a hard day’s week to earn a living, ultimately, our livelihood depends solely on G-d, and we must therefore turn to Him at all times and ask for His continued blessing. We must remember that there is no such thing as “financial security” – except when we place our trust in G-d and have complete faith in His unlimited ability to provide for us and for our families.”
(We certainly aren’t going to find that in any state statute or Congressional decision!)
There is another extremely connected halacha that must be considered in this context – that of heter iska. Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe (“Doing Business with G-d”) we learn that:
“The Torah strictly forbids the collection or payment of usury on a loan granted from one Jew to another. However, there is a procedure, called heter iska (“partnership clause”), by which it is permitted to profit from funds extended to one’s fellow. In a heter iska contract it is stipulated that the money is not a loan but an investment in a joint business venture, with profits to be shared between the owner of the capital and the one who has been granted the right to use it and deal with it.
Why is interest on a loan forbidden while profit-sharing on an investment is permitted? The legal difference is that in the case of a loan, the money is no longer the property of the lender. From the moment the borrower receives it, it is his money in every respect (it is only that in receiving the loan he assumes the obligation to make a payment for the same amount to the lender at some future date). So, if the lender were to collect a fee or percentage in return for the benefit the borrower is deriving from the money, he would be being rewarded for the fact that the money was once his, not for something that he is contributing now. This the Torah forbids. On the other hand, in the case of a heter iska agreement, the money remains the property of the investor (in partnership with the one to whom the money has been entrusted) and the compensation he receives is not “free profit,” but profit that his money is currently generating.”
We think of a loan as giving our money to someone else and getting our money back at a late date. However, halachically that is not the case at all. It is not considered “our money” that someone else is using for the duration of the loan….instead there are two distinct legal actions that take place in a halachic loan:
- We give the money away, 100%. We have no ownership, no input, no involvement after that moment. It is no longer our money and we have no legal claim to it whatsoever.
- The recipient makes a separate legal agreement to pay us a matching sum at a later date of his own money.
This would translate to meant that if I lend money to someone, for the entire life of the loan I do not look at the business choices or the investments of the recipient (although hopefully I did that before I gave the loan!)
However, in contrast with this, through heter iska there a partnership. In the case of heter iska I am investing my money in a joint venture. That venture may be the success of another’s business, his family, his household repairs, whatever it is, I am invested in the success of the venture. My money remains my money invested in the success of the venture and I am watching and advising and worrying about the venture and at the end of the agreed upon time period I get my money back plus a portion of the profits that were enabled by my investment.
In sum, with a loan, I give the money and I’m out of the picture until the day you pay me the same amount. With heter iska, I’m investing in you, I’m intimately involved in the venture, we are partners and I reap a benefit from doing this.
These two different modalities mirror two different philosophical approaches to our relationship with G-d. If we view our lives as a loan from G-d, we can say G-d gives me this body and a certain number of years, I do what I want, I don’t pay any interest to G-d, G-d is not involved with my life and eventually my soul and body are returned to G-d with no other payment due, no interest due.
However, if we view our lives as partnership with G-d, then G-d is intimately involved with our lives and our choices and our actions. Our soul and our body are not ours to do with exactly as we desire, we have to consider our partner’s wishes as well. And we pay interest to our Grantor – we do mitzvot, we learn Torah, we abstain from certain things and we bend ourselves in certain ways.
When were feel ourselves to be un-involved with G-d, to have no relationship but yet be expected to pay interest – that’s unpalatable. We see so many manifestations of this dynamic play out in our lives:
- a child who feels no relationship, no involvement with a teacher, won’t go above and beyond what’s due
- an employee who is hired simply to do a job and doesn’t have input and involvement in the company, will do the job but not add interest – extra time, extra effort – that she’s not paid for because she’s not involved in the overall success of the company.
- In a personal relationship – if there is no true partnership, mutual investment, there is no depth in the relationship.
So if we think about it in those terms, the very dry halacha forbiding loans with interest can actually be a reminder that our life is not a loan – it is a partnership and G-d is invested in us! May we take strength from this idea, and continually find joy in our halachic system.