Seeking debt relief: Is Judaism's 'prosbul' enough?

The essence of prosbul is a transfer of bonds from creditors to the court of law. The bond remains intact despite the biblical debt relief.

 SEEKING BIBLICAL debt relief. (photo credit: Towfiqu barbhuiya/Unsplash)
SEEKING BIBLICAL debt relief.
(photo credit: Towfiqu barbhuiya/Unsplash)

One aspect of shmita – the biblically mandated sabbatical year – is a system of debt relief whereby creditors release debtors from loans that are due to be repaid. This requirement is commonly termed shmitat kesafim (release of funds). The release is triggered on Rosh Hashanah following the sabbatical year. 

During the Second Temple period, it became apparent that creditors were not extending loans to the needy, lest they would not be able to recover the funds because of shmitat kesafim. This was in direct conflict with the biblical warning not to let the remission requirement hinder extending assistance to the needy (Deuteronomy 15:9).

To combat that trend and assist the needy, Hillel the Elder instituted a legal instrument termed “prosbul.” The essence of prosbul is a transfer of bonds from creditors to the court of law. The sabbatical remission requirement applies only to debts owed to individuals; it does not apply to debts owed to the court. Hence, the bond remains intact despite the biblical debt relief. Creditors – acting as agents of the religious court – can then recover outstanding debts despite shmitat kesafim. 

  (credit: INGIMAGE) (credit: INGIMAGE)

Rabbi Yosef Hayim of Baghdad (1835-1909) discussed the laws of this debt relief in his Ben Ish Hai. He was a prolific writer, but he is identified by the title of this volume due to its widespread popularity. After recounting the relevant basic laws, he added:

“And behold there are those who act piously, after they write the prosbul, they lend some sum of money – 10 grush or less or more – to a friend, and on that amount the prosbul is ineffective, since they loaned [the money] after the time of the prosbul. 

“And then, after Rosh Hashanah, when his friend brings him the funds to pay him back, [the creditor] should say to [the debtor], ‘I cancel [the debt],’ and [the creditor] should not receive [the funds] from [the debtor], and the debtor can use these funds and enjoy them, and the creditor can enjoy the mitzvah of releasing monies [owed] that he actually fulfilled.”

Ben Ish Hai was advocating a symbolic attempt at preserving an element of the biblical debt release, even though the majority of payable loans would have been subject to the prosbul proviso. He then added a biographical note: 

“And praises to the Mighty One, may He be blessed, I instituted this mitzvah, here in our city, Baghdad, may God protect it. I printed prosbul documents and I distributed them to a number of people and they filled them out. 

“And I also taught them that they should do thus – to loan any sum after the prosbul time and to actually fulfill the mitzvah, as stated above. 

“Fortunate is Israel, who love the commandments of God and fulfill them with joy.” 

Ben Ish Hai added a further angle. Shmita debt relief also applied to food that has been borrowed. As Ben Ish Hai indicated later in the passage, this position has already appeared in the writings of his predecessors. The law was simply stated: 

“And also if a person borrowed loaves of bread from his friend, even one loaf, the law of shmita applies to this.”

Ben Ish Hai saw this as an opportunity for fulfillment of the mitzvah by another sector of the community:

“Therefore, it is good if the woman loans a loaf of bread or two or three to her friend on the day before Rosh Hashanah, and after Rosh Hashanah, when [the borrower] pays her back, she will say to her: ‘I cancel [the debt],’ and thus this woman fulfills the commandment of shmita.”

“Therefore, it is good if the woman loans a loaf of bread or two or three to her friend on the day before Rosh Hashanah, and after Rosh Hashanah, when [the borrower] pays her back, she will say to her: ‘I cancel [the debt],’ and thus this woman fulfills the commandment of shmita.”

Ben Ish Hai

Once again Ben Ish Hai provided a report from the local Jewish community: 

“And thus a number of women did so in our city, may God protect it, because with the help of God, may He be blessed, I preached [about] this matter in public. Fortunate is Israel!”

The Gerer Hassidic rebbe's work on prosbuls

LEST WE think that Ben Ish Hai was a lone voice advocating this creative course: Another authority, from a different cultural milieu, also signed a prosbul and then gave out a loan in order to preserve an element of the original biblical requirement to provide debt relief. This episode was publicly reported in 1994 as the 5754 shmita year drew to a close.

On Shabbat afternoon, August 6, 1994 – the day before Rosh Hodesh Elul, the final month of that shmita year – Rabbi Pinhas Menachem Alter of Ger (1926-1996) spoke to his hassidim. These talks were posthumously published under the title Pnei Menahem (Jerusalem 2001). As per the practice in Ger Hassidism, the title of the rebbe’s work became the standard name for the hassidic master. 

Within a month of the talk, people would diligently write prosbuls before the onset of the next Hebrew year. Pnei Menahem concluded with a vignette about his father, Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Alter of Ger (Imrei Emet, 1865-1948):

“I heard from one the elders who saw that my father, of blessed memory, (when he was in the Land of Israel) in the shmita year, wrote a prosbul as per the institution of the sages, and nevertheless, since he wanted to fulfil the commandment of shmitat kesafim, therefore, after writing the prosbul, he sought after a poor person to lend him a bit of money in order to fulfil the plain meaning of the verse ‘and your heart shall not be resentful [when you give to him; Deuteronomy 15:10], since loans from here henceforth [that is, after signing a prosbul] are released.’” 

There is no indication that the Polish hassidic master had been inspired by the Baghdadi rabbinic leader. Moreover, Imrei Emet seems to have gone further than Ben Ish Hai in that he actively sought out a needy person so that the debt relief would provide assistance to the impoverished. 

Notwithstanding the difference, it seems that the two rabbis – who were educated in different cultural contexts – were driven by a heartfelt desire to fulfill the original biblical commandment, despite the existence of a viable and acceptable rabbinic work-around.■

The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.