16-5769: Mitzvah N-54-55
August 9, 2009
Negative Mitzvah 54 – This is a negative commandment: Do not lend to another Jew and charge him interest, be it money, something to eat or anything else. Hafetz Hayim: Scripture says, “You shall not give him your money at interest, nor give him your provisions of food in usury” (Leviticus 25:37). The terms “Neshech” and “Marbit” (interest and usury) are one thing but Scripture divided them into two terms to make the lender the transgressor of two prohibitions. The lender also violates the prohibition: “Neither shall you put interest upon him” (Exodus 22:24) as well as the injunction: “Do not take interest or increase from him” (Leviticus 25:36) It is in force everywhere, in every time, for both men and women.
Negative Mitzvah 55 – This is a negative commandment: Do not borrow from another Jew at interest. Hafetz Hayim: Scripture says, “You shall not give interest to your brother.” (Deuteronomy 25:36) Which is an admonition to the borrower. He would also violate 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.
As I wrote in the last installment: “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.
We can see from the Mitzvot above, that the Sages had only the harshest words for someone who would charge interest to another Jew. Such a Jew clearly had no intention of helping a fellow Jew without making a profit on the transaction. The Sages thus found a way to heap one sin on top of another. There are no less than four separate sins for a Jew who would charge interest to another Jew.
I can only speculate that this must have been a common occurrence to charge interest to another Jew. That is why it is mentioned no less than four times in the Bible. If you add Negative Mitzvah 55, you see that even the borrower who accepts this arrangement is charged with two sins. He has taken illegal interest and has caused the lender to sin when he accepts the loan. The lender may not be inclined to charge interest but the loan is so risky that the borrower offers to accept a loan with interest. The lender is thus encouraged to make the loan and incur all four sins.
It is better to give the money as charity rather than try and profit from the tribulations of another Jew. The Sages clearly had nothing good to say about money lending in the Jewish community.