15-5769: Mitzvah N-53
July 19, 2009
Negative Mitzvah 53 – This is a negative commandment: Have no part in dealings between a lender and a borrower at interest.
Hafetz Hayim: Scripture says, “Neither shall you put interest upon him” (Exodus 22:24). This means one should not be a guarantor or a witness between them; and the lender is also included in the scope of this prohibition, apart from the injunction not to lend at interest to a Jew (see next lesson). Any intermediary between them who brings them together or helps them arrange the loan violates the injunction “nor shall you put a stumbling-block before the blind.”(Lev. 19:14) This is in effect everywhere, at every time for both men and women.
Jewish law forbids charging interest to another Jew. In an agricultural society, loans are what make farming possible. The need to buy seed, invest in machinery and fertilizer and the constant threat of draught and disease means that a farmer needs money to be able to support his family. Think back to the story of Joseph in Egypt. He taxes the farmers in the years of plenty and then distributes the grain during the seven years of famine. At the end of the famine, he knows that he needs to supply the famers with seed in order for them to once again earn a living from farming.
In this setting, loans are really a form of charity. The farmer is in need and if interest is charged, it will only make it more difficult to earn a living from farming. If the farmer gets too far into debt, he can only sell his field and then himself as an indentured servant to pay off what he owes. Charging interest only speeds up the amount of debt the farmer has to pay and causes him to lose land and freedom sooner. To make a loan without charging interest is a way of helping the farmer and prevents poverty in society. This is why the Torah forbids charging interest to other Jews.
When Jews started living in cities and a more urban economy came to be, the Sages were concerned that without loans and interest, the merchants would be at a disadvantage in the marketplace. Since the Torah forbids charging interest, the Rabbis created a new kind of loan, where the borrower makes the lender a partner in the business and thus is due a percentage of the profits. It is not interest but investment!
What happens though, when a Jew goes to a non-Jew for a loan? The non-Jew is permitted to charge whatever interest the market will bear. In the quest for capital, it would be common for a Jew to get the money needed for business from whoever will lend it. Our Mitzvah warns Jews not be become loan brokers in this trade. Jews must not be middlemen in the loan market and not lend name or reputation in such a transaction. Jews must not guarantee such a loan nor serve as a witness to the transaction and thus appear in court on behalf of the lender if the borrower cannot repay the debt.
The concept of “not putting a stumbling-block before the blind” is an important concept in Judaism in its own right. We will investigate this more fully in the future. Here the middleman between lender and borrower is motivating a sin. He is not sinning himself, but he is causing a desperate Jew to pay interest, which is a sin, and thus he is, through his actions, causing another person to sin. This too is illegal.
The fact is that in the Middle Ages, Jews were limited in occupations to the extent that many became active in lending money; they did charge interest to non-Jews and no good came of it. It caused much pain and misery to Jews all over Europe. The Hafetz Hayim was wise to remind Jews that this is not a business for a nice Jewish boy (or girl).