17-5769 Mitzvot 56-57
August 17, 2009
Negative Mitzvah 56 – This is a negative commandment: Do not refrain from lending money to another Jew for fear of the year of sh’mittah (release), and that the loan will be cancelled.
Hafetz Hayim – As Scripture says: “Beware lest there be a base thought in your heart, saying, “The seventh year, the year of release is at hand” and your eye may be evil, etc. (Deut. 15:9). This is a great sin since the Torah disapproves, calling it base and scoundrelly. It applies to both men and women: by the law of the Torah, at the time that the rule of the jubilee is in effect; and at the present time, by the law of the Sages. Now, Rabbenu Yonah wrote: “At a time when he will not lose his loan, how much more certain it is that if someone hardens his heart not to grant a loan, his sin will be very great.”
Negative Mitzvah 57 – This is a negative commandment: Do not demand payment of a loan over which the seventh year (sh’mittah) has passed.
Hafetz Hayim – As Scripture says: “He shall not exact it of his fellow and his brother because Hashem’s release has been proclaimed (Deut. 15:2)” All this applies at the time that the rule of the jubilee is in effect. In the present, however, when the law of sh’mittah (release) in money matters is only by the ruling of the Sage, one would not violate a prohibition but would rather be doing something forbidden by the Sages.
Let us start with the background. Just as every seventh day is a day of rest and we count seven weeks from Pesach and end with the holiday of Shavuot; so too we count seven years to the year of Sh’mittah, the year of release, when debts would be cancelled and planting/harvesting would be forbidden. At the end of 49 years, that is, seven seven-year cycles, there is a Jubilee year proclaimed where not only debts were cancelled but slaves when free and land sold would revert to its original owner.
In an agricultural society, such laws are needed to prevent land from being collected into large holdings that crowd out the smaller farmers. It prevents farmers from bad crop years and from crushing debt. It also makes sure that anyone who sells their land or their bodies to escape debt, once every 50 years they get a chance to start life over again.
It is not easy to ask someone to forgive a debt. A loan is a business agreement and to ask a lender to forgive a debt is to cost his business money. It should not surprise us that a lender might think, “the year of sh’mittah (release) is almost here and any loans I make may end up cancelled. I think I will not make any more loans until the year has passed.” Who could blame a lender from wanting to make a loan that is almost sure to be cancelled by law?
But, under Jewish law, a loan to a fellow Jew is not really a loan; it is an act of Tzedakah, an act that makes the world a kinder and more just place. The loan is not really being cancelled rather it is transformed into a charitable gift. This is why the Torah considers one who would refrain from loaning money when the year of release is near as one who is “hard hearted”. He is thinking only of his own business and not being considerate of the hard times the borrower is going through. It is therefore a great sin to demand payment of a loan that was cancelled in a sh’mittah year and to not allow it to be cancelled.
As the economy of ancient Israel moved from agriculture to commerce, the laws of release became a burden to the economy. The sage Hillel created a way to have the commercial loans turned over to the courts to collect even after the year of release had started. When the Romans exiled us from the land, all the laws of Jubilee and Sh’mittah ended. Only by the edict of later sages did the laws relating to loans continue but since most monetary matters are now regulated by secular law under the principle of “dina d’machulta dina” “the law of the land is the law” there really is not much need for these regulations relating to loans. Modern Rabbis see the laws that forgive debts as still in force and the pious should still hold by them. Given the restrictions and limits that began with Hillel and because of the Exile, very few really insist on releasing debts in the seventh year in any but a voluntary way. In the modern State of Israel, many of the agricultural laws, including the laws of release have come back into play. Crops are not planted and all debts are assumed to be turned over to the courts and are able to be collected. In all cases, the idea of releasing debts is very limited but making free loans to those in needs remains a very important mitzvah.