18-5769 Mitzvot 58
August 31, 2009
Negative Mitzvah 58 – This is a negative commandment: Do not take as a pledge (or take as collateral for pawn) any utensils with which sustaining food is made.
Hafetz Hayim – As Scripture says: “No man shall take the lower or upper millstone to pledge, for he takes a man’s life to pledge.” (Deut. 24:6). Whether he (the creditor) gave the loan for the pledged object, or he took the object after the loan was made, by his own hand or through the court, he would violate this prohibition. If the object taken in pledge was lost or stolen, he would violate this prohibition (irrevocably, past all rectification). Punishment would be deserved for the lower millstone by itself, and for the upper one by itself. And just as the distinctive characteristics of the lower and upper millstones are that they are two articles serving for one purpose, and there is punishment for the one by itself and for the other by itself, so with any two utensils that serve for one purpose: there is a penalty for each by itself. It is in force everywhere, at every time for both men and women.
In this country, we operate by the maxim “Business is Business” and that there is little relationship between what might be the moral and correct path in life and what we need to do to be successful in business. This Mitzvah is a classic example of how Judaism says that this attitude is wrong. Loaning money to someone in need is a great mitzvah. It is forbidden to charge interest on the loan. Good business practice would tell us to get some collateral on the loan. Here the Torah is teaching that there are just some objects that can not be taken as a pledge. The Torah teaches that one can not accept a millstone; neither the upper nor the lower parts are acceptable as security on the loan.
If you have never seen an ancient mill, it consists of two round stones. The lower one is fixed on the ground and the upper is tied to a windmill or a water wheel that turns, grinding the corn/wheat between the two stones and creating flour. Millstones can not work except as a pair. To take either one as a pledge would leave the mill useless and the miller without a livelihood. To create smaller amounts of flour, some homes had smaller “mills” that would be moved by hand to grind the wheat. Without it, how could the family bake bread for their meals?
This is the crux of the matter. Taking the millstone would not only leave the miller without means of earning a living, but would prevent the miller from feeding his family. Thus all items used in making basic food elements are not allowed to be taken as collateral; you cannot leave a family unable to provide itself with food. That is why if you take both millstones, you are also in violation because it, all the more so, makes it impossible to make food to feed the family. Violating this commandment by taking both as collateral would mean a separate violation for each part of the whole that was taken in pledge. You can’t take the water wheel nor interfere in any way to take from a person what a family needs to survive.
Like modern bankruptcy laws, there are some items that are protected from creditors. So too here, Jewish law insists that items needed for food preparation are not acceptable as a pledge. We don’t leave borrowers without the means to survive.
Business cannot be only about making money. It is also about customer relationships, community building and making the world a better place. When a person finds themselves in a difficult economic condition, we don’t take advantage of their situation; we lend a helping hand to lift them back on their feet.