Prozbol

Our parsha relates the various mitzvot relating to the release of debts in the shemitta year: the commandment to release debts when this year passes, the commandment to abstain from collecting these debts (Devarim 15:1-3), and at the same time a warning not to refrain from lending money in anticipation of the release. (Devarim 15:9-11.)

So it seems a bit surprising that despite this stern warning, our Sages indicated that it is commendable for the borrower to return the money anyway. First it is necessary for the lender to affirm that he is wholeheartedly releasing the debt; only afterwards is it praiseworthy for the borrower to say that “even so”, he wants to return the money. (Mishna Sheviit 10:8-9.)

It seems even more surprising that the Sages themselves provided a way to evade the release altogether, through the mechanism of the prozbol, a special conveyance whose effect is to temporarily transfer one’s debts to the beit din, which is not obligated in the release. (Mishna Sheviit 10:3-7.)

We can begin to understand these halakhot by recognizing that every loan has both a monetary and a personal aspect. From the monetary side of things, it is certainly fair and proper for the borrower to return the money that he borrowed. This is the rule which applies to transactions between Jews and non-Jews – the lender gave the money, so the borrower must return it.

However, the Torah reminds us that behind this seeming monetary equality there is a profound personal inequality. The borrower is simultaneously dependent on the lender and also subordinated to him through a personal lien (shiabud haguf), creating a kind of slavery in miniature. The Scriptures tell us “The rich man rules over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender”. (Mishlei 22:7.)

The analogy between debt and slavery helps us understand the release of debts in the shemitta year. Just as a Jewish slave is released in the seventh year of work, so a Jewish borrower is released at the end of the seven-year shemitta cycle. These commandments are in consecutive passages in our parsha (Devarim 15:1-18).

(As we pointed out in Vayera, it also helps us understand the interest prohibition. Just as a Jewish slave may not be excessively subjugated, so a Jewish borrower may not be charged interest. These commandments are in consecutive passages in parshat Behar, Vayikra 25:35-42).

While the halakha certainly affirms the ideal of fairness in monetary transactions, this principle cannot be rigidly upheld when it conflicts with the ideal of freedom. HaShem tells us “For the children of Israel are slaves to Me”; our Sages inferred, slaves to Me, and not servants to servants, i.e., other human beings. (Kiddushin 22b.) So once in seven years, debts are released.

It is true that when the monetary and human aspects of the loan conflict, the human aspect must dominate. However, the ideal would be to avoid the conflict altogether. One way that this can occur is for the lender to assert that he whole-heartedly releases the debtor from his obligation. Then the aspect of personal subjugation is removed; only the aspect of monetary fairness remains, so it is commendable in such a case to return the money. (Based on Rav Kook’s Ein Ayah on chapter 10 of Sheviit.)

The same objective is acheived by transferring the debts to the beit din through the prozbol. While it is abhorrent for one individual to be subordinate to another, it is understood that all are subordinate to the authority of the beit din. So prozbol also succeeds in removing the dimension of personal subjugation from the loan, making it possible for the loan to be collected even after shemitta.

Rabbi Meir is in the process of writing a monumental companion to Kitzur Shulchan Aruch which beautifully presents the meanings in our mitzvot and halacha. He is also directing the Jewish Business Response Forum at the Center for Business Ethics and Social Responsibility, Jerusalem College of Technology – Machon Lev. The forum aims to help business people run their firms according to Torah, by obtaining prompt, relevant responses to their questions.

From Hasidic Wisdom by Simcha Raz (Elkins/Elkins)

This is what I learned from a thief: He is willing to do the brunt of his work even at night. If he does not get what he set out for that night, he does not despair, he just goes out and gets it another night. He and his mates love each other deeply and completely. He dedicates himself wholeheartedly even to something of little value. He attaches little value to what he does get, selling it for half its worth the following day. He finds his craft most appealing and would not give it up for another. He endures countless pains and blows but is not offended.

- Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezritch

The Kotzker Rebbe commented on LO TA’ASUN KEIN…, do not do so to your G-d, that we should not practice Judaism with KEIN, as YES-MEN, just going through the motions. Our practice should be with our hearts and proper kavana.

“You have not (yet) come to the resting place and hereditary land that G-d is giving you.” (D’varim 12:9) “By the rivers of Bavel, there we sat and also wept, when we remembered Zion.” (T’hilim 137:1) The former pasuk is when we joyfully (and fearfully) were on our way into Eretz Yisrael. The latter describes our leaving the Land, 850 years later. Those 850 years were filled with ups and downs – great ups and deep downs. Basically, our challenge throughout history is to create and maintain the ups, and to totally dispel the downs. Then the latter pasuk will only be a bad memory. These two p’sukim have the same numeric value, lending a sort of balance to the question of whether we are in or out. It’s really up to us.

From the desk of the Director

Does the Torah teach us geography? Apparently so. For in our parshah are we not told that Har Gerizim and Har Eval, the stopping points for the blessings and the curses, are…

“Be’ever HaYarden, acharei derech mevo hashemesh, be’eretz hakena’ani, hayoshev be’arava, mul haGilgal, etzel Alone Mamrei” – ‘On the other side of the Yarden, by the way where the sun goes down, in the Land of the Canaanites, who dwell in the Arava, over against Gilgal, besides the terebinths of Moreh”?

Why this detailed topographical description? The answer, actually, might be precluded in the very descriptions of the places. For the journey is a perilous process of choice between two contradictory cultures. And the way is filled with doubts and vicissitudes.

The journey’s difficult start is characterized by the ‘Other side’ (Be’ever); it is downhill (HaYarden) and dark (Acharei derech mevo hashemesh). But the Canaanite culture encapsulated in the lowlands of the “Arava” can with but a turn of letters be elevated to “Ivri,” as implied by the term “Gilgal,” a wheel. The next station is Alone Mamrei  – Abraham’s first stepping stone in Eretz Yisrael – tainted by the negative possibilities of nearby Shechem, yet ripe with the positive potential of the term “Moreh,” symbolizing Torah.

“Re’eh” – “See!” proclaims the passuk: The ultimate Torah transformation is clearly predicated on crossing that divide from “Ever Hayarden” to “Eretz Yisrael.”

Sincerely yours,
Menachem Persoff, director, Israel Center