Matters of Interest: Reasons and Sources for the Prohibition of Ribbit
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Parsha Halacha: Parshat Behar-Bechukotai
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The Torah portion of Behar (which is joined with Bechukotai this year) discusses the mitzvah of not lending with interest which in Hebrew is called ribbit. This prohibition is also mentioned in Exodus 22:24 and Deut. 23:20-21.
The portion begins with the laws of Shemittah and Yovel, resting the land on the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, and continues with the laws of selling land, followed by the laws of ribbit.
The Abrabanel explains that the laws of Shemittah and Yovel are for the benefit of the poor as the produce of those years is shared equally by all. The Torah continues with another law which benefits the poor: to lend without interest.
The Kli Yakar explains that the mitzvah of not lending with interest is to inculcate in ourselves faith in G-d (bitachon). One who lends with interest has an (almost) guaranteed income whereas the Torah wants a person to have an income which is not guaranteed so that he can place his trust in G-d to sustain him. Thus it is connected with the mitzvah of Shemittah and Yovel as it takes great faith to allow the land to lay fallow for one (or two) years and to trust G-d to bless the produce exponentially.
In addition, the mitzvot of Shemittah and Yovel emphasize the fact that we should treat all Jews as our brothers and sisters and share our produce with them. Similarly, the reason for the mitzvah of not lending with interest is to teach us that we should treat all Jews as our brethren (see below).
In the Torah’s Words
Here are the verses (Levit 25:35-38) regarding the prohibition of taking interest followed by the explanations of the commentaries:
וְכִֽי־יָמ֣וּךְ אָחִ֔יךָ וּמָ֥טָה יָד֖וֹ עִמָּ֑ךְ וְהֶֽחֱזַ֣קְתָּ בּ֔וֹ גֵּ֧ר וְתוֹשָׁ֛ב וָחַ֖י עִמָּֽךְ: אַל־תִּקַּ֤ח מֵֽאִתּוֹ֙ נֶ֣שֶׁךְ וְתַרְבִּ֔ית וְיָרֵ֖אתָ מֵֽאֱלֹקיךָ וְחֵ֥י אָחִ֖יךָ עִמָּֽךְ: אֶת־כַּ֨סְפְּךָ֔ לֹֽא־תִתֵּ֥ן ל֖וֹ בְּנֶ֑שֶׁךְ וּבְמַרְבִּ֖ית לֹֽא־תִתֵּ֥ן אָכְלֶֽךָ: אֲנִ֗י ה אֱלֹ֣קיכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁר־הוֹצֵ֥אתִי אֶתְכֶ֖ם מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם לָתֵ֤ת לָכֶם֙ אֶת־אֶ֣רֶץ כְּנַ֔עַן לִֽהְי֥וֹת לָכֶ֖ם לֵֽאלֹקים:
“If your brother becomes destitute and his hand falters beside you, you shall support him whether a stranger (convert) or a resident, so that he can live with you. You shall not take from him interest or increase, and you shall fear your G-d, and let your brother live with you. You shall not give him your money with interest, nor shall you give your food with increase. I am the L-rd, your G-d, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be a G-d to you.”
“If your brother becomes destitute… beside you” – Take Care of those You Wronged
The term “beside you” indicates that his being destitute may be your fault, such as in a case where you went into improper business competition with him. In such a case, a person is particularly obligated to give that person a loan so he can get back on his feet (Pardes Yosef).
“Beside you” – Help the Poor Even if You are Poor
In addition the verse alludes to the fact that even one who is not poor but is in a difficult financial position (i.e., the borrower is “beside you” and you are financially comparable to him), you should still find a way to lend him money (ibid). This can also be derived from the placement of this mitzvah after that of Yovel, implying that even after the Yovel year, which would be the second consecutive year of a person’s unemployment (if he is a farmer), one should still give free loans to those less fortunate than oneself.
“Beside you” – Treat him as an Equal
In addition the words “beside you” indicate that you should treat the poor as an equal rather than as a charity case (ibid).
So that he can live with you – Give Tzedaka while Alive
The words “live with you” allude to the fact that a person should preferably give tzedaka (a free loan is like tzedaka ) while he is alive rather than leave instructions in his will for some of his estate to be given to tzedaka after his death (ibid). (It is certainly a merit to give money to tzedaka in one’s will, but it is of even greater merit to give that money in one’s lifetime.)
And you shall fear your G-d
Rashi (based on Bava Metzia 58b) explains that it is difficult to overcome the desire to take interest because one knows his money’s potential is being wasted while it is on loan. In addition, one may be tempted to give his money to a gentile who will lend it to a Jew, pretending it is his own money. The Torah therefore encourages us to fear G-d and not to behave in this way.
“Neshech and Tarbit” – What are These?
Rashi (based on Bava Metziah 60b) says that neshech and tarbit are two expressions for the same thing – interest. Neshech means to bite as the interest blows up and increases just like a snake bite while tarbit simply means an increase.
The Ramban says that from the perspective of pshat (the straightforward interpretation of the Torah), neshech refers to a loan whose interest constantly increases. It therefore resembles a snakebite which continues to swell. Whereas tarbit refers to a loan which has a single increase that one must pay at the end of the term. The Torah writes neshech regarding monetary loans as these loans would often have an arrangement where the interest is compounded. Regarding loans of food, on the other hand, the Torah writes tarbit as farmers would customarily borrow food to sustain themselves during the winter and then pay back with an increase from the yield of their crops. The Torah forbids both of these arrangements.
The Ba’al HaTurim writes that רבית – (ribbit) is the gematriyah (numerical value) of 612 as it is equivalent to all of the other mitzvot combined.
The Kli Yakar writes that the word neshech refers to the effect of interest on the borrower; like a snakebite, it starts small and then swells up exponentially. The word tarbit refers to the lender who thinks he will receive an increase in his possessions from such loans. In fact, however, the Talmud says (Bava Metzia 71a based on Psalms 15:5), one who lends with interest will see his wealth falter.
The Kli Yakar adds that although the Torah speaks here about lending to a poor man, the prohibition against lending with interest applies to every Jew. The Torah speaks about lending to the poor as they are the ones who need loans more than others.
No Biting Words
The Pardes Yosef writes that “Don’t give a loan with nesech (a bite)” means that when lending to the poor, one should not make biting comments that make him feel bad about his situation. Rather, one should give him words of encouragement.
“Whether a convert or a resident” – Lend to Monotheistic Gentiles
Rashi says that the “resident” in this context refers to a gentile who has rejected pagan worship. It is a mitzvah to sustain him and, as such, one should extend loans to him. Nevertheless, these loans may include interest as the prohibition against lending with interest applies specifically to fellow Jews (see Deut 23:21).
“Let your brother live with you” – You come first
The Torah calls the borrower “your brother” to explain why you should lend him without interest as you should care for him just as one cares for one’s brother. Despite this, one need not give such a loan if one needs the money to sustain himself, as one’s own (basic) needs come first. This is why the Torah says “with you” to indicate that the borrower is secondary to you. Thus the Talmud (Bava Metzia 62a) says that one’s own life (and basic necessities) come before that of others’ (Seforno).
“With You” – Equal Passage of Time
The Alshich HaKadosh writes that if one lends with interest, the days of the lender and borrower are perceived differently. The lender wishes them to pass quickly so he can get more money while the borrower wants them to pass slowly so he won’t have to pay as much. Whereas if one lends without interest, both people perceive the passage of time equally. The Torah alludes to this by writing “with you,” i.e., you should be equal.
A Tale of Many Souls
The Ohr HaChaim interprets these verses non-literally to be referring to how one should treat one’s G-dly soul. To wit:
If your brother becomes destitute is referring to the G-dly soul which has become spiritually impoverished through our misdeeds.
His hand falters beside you indicates that it is the fault of a person for debasing his own soul.
You shall support him means that one should do Teshuvah (repentance) so that one’s soul will be pure and clean when it returns to its heavenly abode.
Whether a stranger or a resident alludes to the fact that sometimes a person can get additional souls as a gift from Heaven to assist him in his service of G-d. These souls can either stay for a short while (like a stranger) to assist with a particular mitzvah or can remain with the person for an extended time (like a resident).
You shall not take from him interest or increase means, “Do not take away the soul’s spirituality by enjoying excessive physical pleasures (see below).”
And you shall fear your G-d as He is the one who entrusted your soul to you.
So that he can live with you indicates that one should see to it that the soul achieves an increase in spirituality while it is here and not that it is merely not harmed (“live with you” indicates increased vitality).
You shall not take from him interest means one should not indulge in excess physical pleasures as these “bite” a person and harm him spiritually.
Nor shall you give your food with increase means that even one’s necessities (food) should not be enjoyed excessively as these too can harm one’s spiritual sensitivity, as King Solomon said (Mishlei 13:25), “A righteous man eats to sate his appetite.”
I am the L-rd, your G-d, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be a G-d to you indicates that although G-d took us out of Egypt and gave us the land of Israel, He did not do this so that we can enjoy its physical benefits but because the land of Israel is most conducive to spirituality and is therefore the best place for us to be close to G-d, as the verse says, “to be a G-d to you.”
There are many laws relating to this mitzvah. G-d willing, we will cover them another time.
May we all merit to help others get through these difficult times!
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom Umevorach!