The Lost Debt

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Money Jar

A Lesson For the Children – Rabbi Yaakov Berlin, the father of the Netziv of Volozhin, arranged for his daughter to marry Rabbi Yechiel from Noriduk. As was the custom at the time, he set aside a large sum of money as a dowry. The money was very important to the couple, and as was customary it was deposited with one of the rich men of the city of Slotchek, a man well known for his honesty and his good character. The wealthy man was allowed to use the money for his own purposes, with the condition that he would return it when the rightful owner asked for it.

However, the wheel of fortune goes round and round, and the rich man began to lose his fortune. Slowly, his business began to fail, and he lost all his money, on the way to becoming bankrupt.

At first, nobody was aware of the problem. But as the rich man’s fortune became worse the matter became known, Rabbi Yaakov’s family began to worry about the fate of their money. They begged him to go to Slotchek in order to retrieve all or at least part of the dowry before it would be too late. His wife told him, “This is a large sum of money, and our daughter needs it. You must go as soon as possible and demand the return of the deposit. So far he has not yet lost everything, but who knows if he will not lose his entire fortune, and then there will be nothing left!” Rabbi Yaakov was not happy about this task. “The rich man must be in great distress now,” he said to his wife, “and this is not a good time to ask for the money. After all, we don’t really need it now. It will be better for us to wait until he regains his fortune, and then he will certainly be happy to give the whole amount to us.” But one of his brothers also gave his opinion: “Who knows if he will ever recover? We have heard of many cases of wealthy people losing their entire fortunes who were never able to return to their former status.”

Rabbi Yaakov found it hard to decide, but after much pressure was put on him he agreed and went to the rich man’s house. He arrived in Slotchek and started to ask the people in the city about the man. He found that the rumor they had heard was indeed true, and that the man was no longer rich at all, having many debts. Creditors pounded at his door demanding money, but he was not able to pay his debts and he kept denying their requests again and again.

Rabbi Yaakov Berlin felt trapped. The money that he had deposited was very important to him. He had saved it up with a great effort over many years, and it was an important factor for the support of his daughter and her husband for the future. On the other hand, he was acutely aware of the prohibition, “Do not act to him like a creditor” [Shemot 22:24], which means that one should not press a poor man too strongly to pay his debts. Of course it is wrong for a poor man to overextend himself, but this man had no idea in advance that he would reach such a state.

Finally, Rabbi Yaakov made a decision. He would definitely not act as one of the other creditors. Never! He would give up on the loan, and the money that he had lost would serve as atonement for his sins. He did not even go near the house of the man who had been so rich. He immediately looked for a wagon to take him back home, without his money. He had indeed lost the money, but in his heart he was not sorry. He knew that over and above the need to fulfill the mitzva of the Torah, this man, who had been so kind to the public for many years, did not deserve the sadness that he would feel if he would be forced to refuse to give Rabbi Yaakov his money.

The money was lost, but Rabbi Yaakov had remained true to his character.

Source: “Six Hundred and Thirteen Stories about 613 Mitzvot”. Email with reactions and suggestions for stories. Reprinted with permission from Zomet Institute ( Translated from the Hebrew by Moshe Goldberg. To subscribe to receive the complete version of Shabbat B’Shabbato please write to

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.