Parshat Behar: Ethical Dilemmas

Do not take from him interest or a premium. Fear from your G-d. And your brother will live with you. (Sefer VaYikra 25:36)

1. The prohibitions against interest
The Torah prohibits both the charging and paying of interest on a loan to a fellow Jew. The translation of the above passage is based upon the comments of Nachmanides. The passage prohibits collecting neshech and tarbit. Both terms refer to forms of interest on a loan. However, the terms are not synonyms. Neshech describes interest charged as a rate. The loan is given for an indefinite period of time with a periodic interest rate. If a person lends his friend one hundred dollars at a 5% annual interest rate, the interest is described as neshech. The borrower may pay back the loan at the end of the year and deliver to the lender $105. Alternatively, he may delay repayment for ten years. During these ten years the interest will compound. When the loan is repaid at the end of the ten years the borrower will owe the lender $163.
Tarbit refers to simple interest due on a loan when it is repaid on a specific date. If I lend my friend $100 for a year and at the end of that period he must pay me $105, then I have charged him tarbit. Unlike nesech, tarbit cannot compound. The passage is explaining that both of these forms of interest are prohibited.[1]

2. The Talmud’s dilemma: Whose life comes first?
The passage ends with the admonition “and your brother will live with you.” Nachmanides explains the meaning of this admonition. We are each responsible to sustain our fellow Jew.[2] Because of this obligation to extend our assistance and support to others, it is not appropriate to charge interest on a loan.

This closing admonition is also relevant to one of the most famous dialogues in the Talmud. The Talmud poses the following ethical dilemma. Two individuals are traveling through the wilderness. One has a container of water whose contents are adequate to sustain him for the duration of the journey. The other individual has no water and is destined to perish before reaching civilization. If the two travelers divide the water between themselves, then they will both perish. If the traveler who has the water keeps it all for himself and does not share it with his companion, then he will survive the journey and return to civilization but his companion will surely perish. What should the traveler with the water do? Ben-Petura rules that the water should be shared. He argues that it is better for both to share and perish than for one to stand by and watch his fellow die. Ribbi Akiva demurs. He points out that the above admonition requires that one sustain his fellow Jew along with himself. The passage requires that we extend our support to others yet it acknowledges that one’s own life takes precedence over the life of one’s friend. Applied to the ethical dilemma of the travelers, Ribbi Akiva’s principle dictates that the person who has the water preserve his own life and not share with his companion.[3]

3. Derivation of the principle that one’s own life takes precedence of another’s life
How does Ribbi Akiva derive his principle from our passage? Apparently, he argues that the passage could have merely admonished, “and sustain you brother.” Instead, it added “with you”. These additional words are not superfluous. They are intended to teach a lesson. One is required to sustain one’s brother along with one’s self but not in place of one’s self. Therefore, in an instance in which one must choose between his own life and the life of another he must preserve his own life.[4] However, a more careful consideration of Ribbi Akiva’s derivation of his principle from this passage will help solve a vexing problem.

And it will be that if he says to you I will not go forth from you for I love you and your household – because it is good for him with you, then you will take the awl and put it through his ear and into the doorway. He will be your servant for an extended period … (Sefer Devarim 16-17)

4. The strange relationship between servant and master
The Torah permits an impoverished person to sell himself as an indentured servant. The period of servitude is fixed. It is for six years. However, the Torah also foresees the possibility that the servant will resist returning to freedom at the end of his period of indenture and will prefer to remain a member of his master’s household. The Torah allows the servant to extend his servitude until the Jubilee year. The above passage explains that the servant who extends his servitude must agree to the piercing of his ear before the court.

In describing the circumstances leading to the servant’s request to extend the period of his indenture, the Torah explains that the servant makes this request because he has enjoyed a good life with his master. The Talmud explains that this passage reflects the Torah’s enlightened regulations regarding the treatment of the indentured servant. The master must properly provide for the servant. The basic requirement is that the master must provide for the servant a dwelling, clothing, and food that is on par with his own standard. In other words, the bread given to the servant must meet the standard set by the master for his own bread. The servant’s mattress must be suitable for the master. The master cannot require that his servants live in an inferior neighborhood. These standards are so exacting that the Talmud concludes its discussion by quoting an adage of the Sages. Anyone who acquires a servant actually acquires a master for himself. In other words, the obligation upon the master to care properly for his servant is so rigorous as place the master in virtual servitude to his servant. [5]

Tosefot object that this adage seems to exaggerate the master’s responsibilities. It is true that the master must care for the servant in a manner that treats the servant as his equal. This is indeed an exacting standard. However, it does not elevate the servant to the status of master over his owner. In other words, the master is required to care for the servant as his equal, not as his superior.

Tosefot present a response to this objection based upon a discussion in the Jerusalem Talmud. They explain that, in fact, there is a circumstance in which the master must actually subordinate his own interests to those of his servant. Consider a case in which the master has a single pillow. Because he cannot provide the servant with sleeping conditions inferior to his own, he cannot keep the pillow for himself and deny the servant. It is also inappropriate to deny himself use of the pillow rather than giving it to the servant. Therefore, the master has a single option – to give the pillow to the servant rather than use it himself. In this circumstance, the master’s interests are subordinate to those of his servant. The servant is elevated to a status superior to the master. [6]

Rav Avraham Chaim Shur Z”l in his commentary Torat Chaim observes that there is an apparent contradiction between Tosefot’s conclusion and Ribbi Akiva’s principle. According to Ribbi Akiva, one’s own life takes precedence over the life of another. If this principle is applied to the circumstances described by Tosefot, it seems the master – even if he is required to treat his servant as an equal – should be permitted to keep the pillow for himself. Ribbi Akiva’s principle applies to equals. It dictates that, among equals, one should care for his own life before the life of another. If the master has but a single pillow, it follows that even though he must treat the servant as his equal, among equals the master’s interests take precedence.[7]

5. Ribbi Akiva’s unique perspective on the commandments
There are a number of possible approaches for resolving this apparent contradiction. The obvious distinction between Ribbi Akiva’s principle is that it deals with life and death decisions. The requirement to give the pillow to the servant is not a life and death issue. However, this distinction does not, in itself, resolve the contradiction. It is true that Ribbi Akiva’s principle deals with life and death but its apparent premise is one is expected – even required – to place his own interests before those of one’s equals. It is reasonable to apply this principle to the predicament of the master and slave.

However, an interesting solution to the contradiction emerges from a careful consideration of the derivation of Ribbi Akiva’s principle. He derives his principle from the phrase with you in the injunction that “that you sustain your brother with you.” Ribbi Akiva discerned in the admonition “and sustain your brother with you” the message that these commandments do not merely dictate actions and attitudes; they describe the individual’s relationship to society. These various mitzvot should not be understood as specific, individual, required and prohibited behaviors that govern our treatment of others. They should be understood as a description of the relationship of the individual – the “self” – with those external to one’s self. They describe how the individual should interact with others.

6. The remarkable implications of Ribbi Akiva’s perspective
If this interpretation is accepted, then these various commandments are all predicated upon the existence of a living, functioning individual whose relationships they regulate. They describe how this living individual should interrelate with that which is external to the self. Any set of regulations that describe how one should live or relate to others presumes the existence of the person whose interactions are described.

This concept may seem abstract but a simple illustration will help clarify its meaning and allow us to explore its implications. Consider an office manager who develops a set of practices and procedures for the employees in his office. His manual will deal with how vistors should be greeted, the handling of receipts from purchases, payroll procedures. However, this manual will not discuss whether the office should have a receptionist, bookkeeper, or secretary. The resolution of these issues precedes the development of the manual. The manual addresses solely how these personnel operate within the office. The manual addresses the issue of how the employees should conduct themselves and presumes that these employees should exist.

The mitzvot that regulate the individual’s relationships with others are similar to the manual in the illustration. They exist to regulate how the individual relates to others. They presume the existence of the individual whose behaviors and relationships these commandments describe. Just as the existence of the personnel positions in the office logically precedes the instructions in the manual so too the mitzvot that describe the relationship of the self with others, are predicated upon the existence of the person whose relationships are described.

Ribbi Akiva perceived that a system of commandments designed to regulate how a person lives with others presumes the existence of that individual. By its very nature, a system that deals with the how we live in relation to others cannot suggest that the individual should live or sacrifice his live. Instead, the system presumes that the person whose relationships are regulated does in fact exist.

Now, the contradiction between Ribbi Akiva’s principle and Tosefot’s ruling can be resolved. Ribbi Akiva’s principle dictates that the commandments cannot require that a person sacrifice his life for another. This is not because the Torah regards the life of one person as more precious or valuable than the life of another. Ribbi Akiva’s principle is based upon his understanding of the manner in which the commandments are formulated. They are formulated as regulating how the individual relates to others. Therefore, they cannot – by definition – impose a requirement of self-sacrifice of one’s life on behalf of another. This does not mean that the Torah suggests that a person perceive himself as more important than others.

It does not at all follow from Ribbi Akiva’s principle that one may always place one’s own interests before those of an equal. His principle is completely unrelated to this question. From Ribbi Akiva’s perspective, it is quite possible that although one does not give up his own life to save another one may indeed be required to subordinate his interests to another. Therefore, the fact that under specific circumstances a master is required to place the interests of his servant before his own is not contradictory to his principle.

[1] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer VaYikra 25:36.

[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer VaYikra 25:36.

[3] Mesechet Baba Metzia 62a.

[4] This principle only dictates that a person not sacrifice his life in order to preserve the life of another person. Ribbi Akiva is not suggesting that the traveler who has no water is permitted to assault the traveler with the water container in order to preserve his own life. Similarly, the principle does not apply when one is threatened with death if he does not take the life of another. In this instance, the person is required to obey the commandment to not murder and must sacrifice his own life.

[5] Mesechet Kiddushim 20a.

[6] Tosefot, Mesechet Kiddushin 20a.

[7] Rav Avraham Chaim Shur, Torat Chaim, Commentary on the Talmud, Mesechet Baba Metzia 62a.