Parsha Halacha

Parshat Ki Tavo

Saving Loans from Shmittah Cancellation

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In the Torah portion of Ki Tavo we read the section of blessings and curses. According to the Talmud (Megillah 31b), this Torah portion is always read before Rosh HaShana. (See Tosfot [D.H. Kelalot] that Ki Tavo is always read on the Shabbat before the final Shabbat of the year as the Torah portion of Nitzavim is read on that Shabbat.)
One of the blessings Moshe blesses the Jewish people (Deut. 28:12) is that if they follow the will of G-d “you will lend many nations, but you will not need to borrow.” Conversely, if they do not adhere to G-d’s will, (ibid verse 44) the foreigner among you “will lend you money, but you shall not lend him.”
The Ohr HaChaim (on verse 12) explains that the Jewish people will be blessed to be the focal point of G-d’s sustenance to the world to the extent that the Divine blessing of the entire world will flow through the Jewish people. As such, although wealthy people also borrow money, the Jewish people will not have to borrow and will only lend.
Since the Torah portion mentions loans, this article will discuss the concept of a Pruzbul which allows for the collection of loans during and after the Shmittah year. This is relevant since the coming Jewish year (5782) is a Shmittah year.

Shmittah Absolves Loans
The Torah instructs us to cancel all debts during the Shmittah year, as it says (Deut 15:2, “This is the manner of the release: One should release the hand of every creditor from what he lent his friend; one shall not exact from his friend or his brother because the time of the release for the L-rd has arrived.” I.e., since the Torah says to release the loans we may not collect them.

Why Are Debts Cancelled?
The commentaries offer several explanations as to why G-d ordained that the Shmittah year cancels debts:
  • Money Belongs to G-d
The Ibn Ezra explains that debts are canceled in honor of G-d thus signifying that all money belongs to Him. This is similar to the law that we may not work the land during the Shmittah year–to show that the earth belongs to the Almighty.
  • Trust in G-d
The Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 477) writes that by cancelling our debts during Shmittah, which is an incredibly generous act, we strengthen our faith that G-d will ensure that this act of kindness will not diminish our wealth in the long run. This theme is shared with the mitzvah of not working the land during Shmittah which also demonstrates our faith in G-d that He will provide for our needs in miraculous ways when we fulfill His will.
  • Stay Far Away from Theft
Another lesson we can learn from this mitzvah, according to the Sefer HaChinuch, is to distance ourselves from any type of thievery and jealousy. One should consider: If the Torah instructs me to even absolve a debt I am owed due to Shmittah, how much more so may I not take anything that actually belongs to anyone else or do anything that is even remotely dishonest financially.
  • The Great Equalizer
According to Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (Germany 1785 – 1865) in his HaKetav VeHakabalah, by cancelling all debts, the Torah is allowing those who are saddled with debt and are in a state of servitude to their creditors (insofar as they are constantly working to pay them back) to become free men. This explanation also mirrors the mitzvah of not working the land on Shmittah as during Shmittah everyone is considered to be equal owners of the land and its produce.
  • Protects the Shmittah
Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin (of Volozhyn, 1863 – 1893) explains (in Ha’amek Davar) that if one were obligated to pay his debts during Shmittah, one might be tempted to work one’s land during that year in order to pay his debt. This was especially true in ancient society which was largely based on agriculture. In order to prevent this situation from occurring, the Torah commands us to cancel all debts when Shmittah arrives. (See also in the Chizkuni.)

Must Give Loans Even Before Shmittah
The Torah forbids one from not lending money before Shmittah because one might fear that his debt will be cancelled, as it says (Deut. 15:9-10, “Beware lest there be in your heart an unfaithful thought, saying, ‘The seventh year, the year of release has approached,’ and you will begrudge your needy brother and not give him, and he will cry out to the L-rd against you, and it will be a sin to you. You shall surely give him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him; for because of this thing the L-rd, your G-d, will bless you in all your work and in all your endeavors.”
Based on this verse, our sages said (Gittin 36a) that one who does not give a loan due to the approaching Shmittah has transgressed a negative commandment. (One should consider that if the loan is not collected before Shmittah it will be like an act of tzedakah.)
The Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 480) explains that this mitzvah encourages generosity and discourages stinginess. One who gives a loan knowing that he may never get paid back is showing tremendous generosity. This generosity will bring one great blessing. In the words of the Sefer HaChinuch, “Anyone who knows the ways of the Torah and understands even a little bit of its gracious value, will clearly know that one who gives generously to the needy will be repaid in kind, whereas one who withholds, will have his wealth diminished. G-d judges a person according to his deeds and blesses him according to how close one is to Him. One who is stingy has created an iron barrier between himself and blessings whereas one who is generous will benefit from the blessings that he himself has created.”

Withholding Tzedakah
The Minchat Chinuch explains that the simple meaning of the verse is that one may not hold back from giving tzedakah before the Shmittah year in light of the fact that he will be without income during that year. This is borne out by the next verse (quoted above) which says, “You shall surely give him.” (Giving implies a gift rather than a loan.) Nevertheless our sages had a tradition that the verse is referring to withholding a loan before the Shmittah. The rabbinic explanation does not negate the simple meaning and, as such, one who withholds tzedakah on account of Shmittah also transgresses a negative commandment.

Hillel’s Pruzbul
The Talmud (Gittin ibid) says that Hillel realized people were refraining from giving loans before Shmittah out of fear that their debts would be cancelled. This situation made the plight of the poor people worse as the year of Shmittah should have lightened their load by freeing them of debt and instead they could not even get loans in the first place. In addition, the wealthy people were transgressing the sin of not giving loans before Shmittah which the Torah equates with idolatry, as it says, “lest there be in your heart an unfaithful (בְלִיַּ֜עַל/G-dless) thought.” The expression בְלִיַּ֜עַל is used elsewhere (Deut. 12:13) when it refers to idol worship.
In order to prevent this from occurring, Hillel established the Pruzbul which is a Halachic mechanism that allows people to collect their debts during and after the Shmittah year.

The Mechanism
Certainly Hillel (or any rabbi) cannot abrogate the Torah law which dictates that a loan is cancelled by Shmittah. What Hillel did was to create a mechanism whereby, according to the Torah’s own rules, Shmittah does not cancel certain debts.
To explain: By Torah law, one may transfer one’s debts to the court before Shmittah who may then collect them and keep them for the use of the courts. This is called Moser Shtarotav LeBeit Din, handing over one’s documents to the court (Makkot 3b). The Sifri derives this from the text (of verse 3) which says תַּשְׁמֵ֥ט יָדֶֽךָ – your hand shall remit, i.e., only a private debt is remitted but not a debt owed to a communal body such as a court.
The Ritva (on Makkot ibid) explains that, by Torah law, it is necessary to physically hand over the documents of debt to the court before the Shmittah year. At that point they “own” the debt and may collect it as they see fit. (See also Rashi on Makkit ibid.)
What Hillel established is that the creditor need not hand over the documents to the court. Rather he makes one document (some say it may be an oral declaration) which transfers all of his debts to the court. He may then collect those debts as an “agent of the court” which authorizes him to do so and to keep the money for himself (see alsoJerusalem Talmud Shvi’it 10:2).

How Can Hillel Override Torah Law?
The Talmud (Gittin ibid) questions how Hillel could establish something that goes against the Torah’s laws (as the documents aren’t physically given to the court). Two answers are offered:
  • Rabbinic Shemittah
Some say that the laws of Shmittah nowadays (both that of resting the land and that of cancelling debt) are only of Rabbinic origin. As such, the rabbis have the power to decide which debts will be cancelled and which will be upheld.
  • Hefker Beit Din
Another explanation is that, even by Torah law, the rabbis have the right to declare property ownerless. This is called Hefker Beit Din Hefker. As such, Hillel declared that the money owed to the debtors (which were cancelled by Shmittah) should be removed from the “property” of the debtors and become the “property” of the creditors.

G-d willing, next week we will discuss the details and laws of the Pruzbul.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom UMevorach!

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