Parashat Re’eh: Why forgive a debt?

Generosity, a kind eye, and trust in God are basic traits of the Jewish people, and we are privileged to continue this precious heritage.

 Just imagine a situation in which banks would have to forgive all debts (photo credit: Towfiqu barbhuiya/Unsplash)
Just imagine a situation in which banks would have to forgive all debts
(photo credit: Towfiqu barbhuiya/Unsplash)

In this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, we come across a rare commandment that is fulfilled only once every seven years. Nowadays, as we will see later, it is almost never fulfilled. However, the spirit of this commandment and its reasons have influenced Jewish heritage and culture until our own times. We are discussing shmitat kesafim, the cancellation of debts.

This commandment deals with loans between people. A person who lent his friend a sum of money is obligated, once every seven years with the end of the shmita year, to forgive the debt.

How can you halachically forgive debts without collapsing the economy?

Nowadays, that sounds impossible. Such a practice would destroy modern economies based on available credit. Keeping this commandment today could be unfairly exploited. Just imagine a situation in which banks would have to forgive all debts. They would all immediately collapse, and the economy would be destroyed.

Therefore, there is a halachic solution called pruzbul. Without going into the practical details of this solution, suffice it to say that it provides a kosher way to collect debts even after the end of the shmita year.

guaranteed loan approval (credit: PR)guaranteed loan approval (credit: PR)

An ancient economy based on agriculture, where debts could be erased

In ancient times, when the economy was based on agriculture rather than on credit, loans were used only to help the needy. Whoever got to the point of needing to borrow from a friend was apparently in financial distress. The commandment of shmitat kesafim refers to this situation when, once every seven years, there is a new economic reality that provides a clean slate for that impoverished person: all debts are erased.

Obviously, this commandment is liable to also cause damage, which the Torah refers to explicitly:

“Beware, lest there be in your heart an unfaithful thought, saying, The seventh year, the year of release, has approached, and you will begrudge your needy brother and not give him, and he will cry out to the Lord against you, and it will be a sin to you. You shall surely give him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him!” (Deuteronomy 15:9-10).

“Beware, lest there be in your heart an unfaithful thought, saying, The seventh year, the year of release, has approached, and you will begrudge your needy brother and not give him, and he will cry out to the Lord against you, and it will be a sin to you. You shall surely give him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him!”

Deuteronomy 15:9-10

The Torah commands us to generously loan money to that needy brother and not worry about the damage incurred by forgiving the debt. In return, this Divine promise is given: “...for because of this thing the Lord, your God, will bless you in all your work and in all your endeavors” (ibid.).

SEFER HAHINUCH is a book written in the 13th century by an author who preferred to keep his identity secret. It details the Torah’s commandments, their reasons, and the halachot involved. Learning this book is a great introduction to Judaism, and indeed it is accepted around Jewish communities in the world as a basic book.

Regarding the commandment of shmitat kesafim, the author of Sefer Hahinuch writes that the commandment was meant “to train our souls in the virtuous traits, the trait of generosity and a kind eye, and to fix in our hearts great trust in God, blessed be He.... And also coming from this is a strong hedge and partition to distance ourselves greatly from theft and from envy for anything that belongs to our neighbors. For we can draw an a fortiori argument, saying, ‘Even with my own money that I lent out, the Torah said to release it in the hand of the borrower when the sabbatical year arrives. All the more so regarding not stealing and not having envy for what belongs to the other, it behooves me to distance myself to the [other] extreme’” (Sefer Hahinuch, commandment 477).

The author of Sefer Hahinuch tells us that this commandment has several interwoven purposes: to teach us generosity and a kind eye and support of others; to train ourselves to trust in God, Who told us to forgive the debts of the needy; and to distance ourselves from stealing and being envious of what others have.

As we said, this commandment is not feasible in modern economies; therefore, a halachic solution exists. However, there are other ways to keep this commandment through donations to needy people defined as loans and then, at the end of this year – the shmita year – the debt is forgiven and the loan becomes a grant.

In any case, the messages of this commandment trickled down into Jewish culture. Generosity, a kind eye, and trust in God are basic traits of the Jewish people, and we are privileged to continue this precious heritage. ■

The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.