Why does Jewish law forbid charging interest to another Jew but allow the Jew to
lend money to a non-Jew with interest? Don’t we care about all of humanity? And
why just money? If the goal is a more humane society, why not forbid making a
profit on any of my belongings? Theoretically, I should rent my cars for free,
allow people to stay at my guest house for free, give legal and medical services
for free, and so on.
Imagine offering a couple a million dollars in
exchange for their newborn baby.
Sane people would laugh in your
They may have spent their whole lives trying to earn a million
dollars, but it is clear to them not only that the value of their baby exceeds a
million dollars, but that even mentioning money in relation to their baby’s
value borders on the absurd.
Two things of value: love and
People will invest huge amounts of time and energy for both, yet
the value of one entirely and completely cancels out the value of the other.
What is the difference between them? Love is a concept that defies
We could say that the reason we love our children is
because we birthed them, or because they are cute. We could explain that we love
our spouses because they have a good sense of humor or because they make us feel
good. But the truth is that the only good answer to why we love someone is
“because.” Love defies explanation; it just is. Imposing some ulterior motive on
this transcendent experience is like trying to smell a rose with our
When we say in our prayers, “There is nothing that shares Your
value, G-d, our Lrd, in this world,” we are asserting that there is nothing in
this world that can be used as a measuring tool for the value of our
relationship with G-d. Just as using money to measure our love for our child or
spouse revolts us with its absurdity, so too, a relationship with Him wipes out
all other values.
When we finger crisp new bills, when we fill up our
wallets and our bank accounts, we feel good. We feel powerful. What we love
about money is not, as people think, that we want to amass more things. We can’t
eat money or wear money, but with money we hold in our hands limitless
possibilities, pure (green) potential. The whole world and all its pleasures are
within our grasp. And therein lies its power.
R’ Tzadok HaKohen points
out a difference between the human and the animal.
An animal left to its
own devices eats what it needs, and stops when is satisfied.
the other hand, may be almost comatose from gorging, yet when the chocolate
cream pie is brought out, we hear emanating from the depths of the couch a
little voice saying, “Well, maybe just one small piece.”
Where does this
desire for just a little bit more come from? Why are we so driven for just one
more piece of cake, one more academic degree, one more trip, one more
experience? A cow never looks at the cow in the stall next door to see if its
hay is crunchier. It has its hay. It eats it. Yet which human doesn’t compare
and contrast his portion with that of the next guy? R’ Tzadok says this uniquely
human tendency touches on the very basis of what a person is. A human being, who
has a soul that must connect to the eternal, needs to never be satiated.
Yearning and longing are its natural state. “My soul thirsts for You [G-d]; my
flesh longs for You.” The scorn of the loving parent for the million dollars
mirrors the soul. Nothing this world has to offer can completely satisfy that
ultimate spiritual connoisseur, the soul, which remains, always, in a state of
So we, beings who are created with an insatiable desire for more,
hold chunks of tangible desire in our hands in the form of money. And God says:
Don’t prostitute this desire. Don’t take the very thing that represents yearning
and longing for more (kesef, the Hebrew word for money shares a root with the
word kissufin, desire), and use it just to acquire more of the same.
yearning, this kisuf, comes from the very deepest place inside of you. You can
charge for your fleet of cars, your house, your time or your expertise, but the
money itself, the very symbol of yearning for value – don’t use it just to
acquire more of the same.
This is why taking interest from a non- Jew is
permitted. Jewish Law is supportive of healthy, wholesome and economically
feasible living. To forbid a Jew to lend money with interest to a non-Jew when
there would be no reciprocity would be unfair and economically unfeasible. And
there is nothing intrinsically wrong with lending money with interest just as
there is nothing wrong with renting out any of my other belongings.
not taking interest from a fellow Jew, who was also charged with the mission of
reminding the world where yearning should lead, who is also asked to put the
value of relationship over the value of money, gives us the opportunity to
reinforce the value that supersedes and transcends all other values.
writer lectures weekly to hundreds of Israeli university students on Jewish
thought, through the organization Nefesh Yehudi. The ideas in this article are
drawn from the works of Rabbi Moshe Shapiro, shlita. She welcomes comments and
questions and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org