Masechet Bava Metzia 69a-75b

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Interest
02 Jul 2009
Torah

The Coming Week’s Daf Yomi by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim (original ideas) of Talmudic scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, as published in the Hebrew version of the Steinsaltz Edition of the Talmud.

Bava Metzia 69a-b

Our Gemara tells of two Kutim who came before Rav Papa and asked him to adjudicate between them on a question of dividing up the proceeds of their partnership.

While Rav Yaakov Emden suggests that these were Jews from the area of Kuta, most of the commentaries assume that these were truly Kutim, as it was not unusual to find Kutim – and even non-Jews – coming to the Talmudic sages for litigation, since they had a reputation as honest and intelligent judges.

The term Kutim refers to the nations (not all of whom were truly Kutim, as there were people from other nations, as well) that were exiled to the Land of Israel by the kings of Assyria who were interested in populating the land after they had removed the Israelite people from it. According to Sefer Melakhim (see II Melakhim, chapter 17), these nations converted to Judaism because of their fear of lions that had begun attacking them (from which derives the term geirei arayot – “lion converts”), but they continued worshiping their gods at the same time.

Upon the return of the Jews to Israel at the beginning of the Second Temple period, the Samaritans, descendants of the Kutim, were active in trying to keep the returnees from rebuilding the Temple and the walls of the city of Jerusalem. Even so, there were families – including members of the kohanim – who intermarried with the Samaritans.

During the following years there were continued tensions between the two communities, and Yochanan Hyrcanus led his troops into battle against the Samaritans and destroyed the temple that they had built on Har Gerizim. Nevertheless, there were also periods of cooperation, such as the period of the Bar Kochba rebellion. As is clear in our Gemara, the attitude of the Sages towards them differed, although after a period of time a final conclusion was reached and they were ruled to be treated as non-Jews, due to their continued involvement with different types of idol worship.

It is important to note that the Gemara in Yevamot concludes that while a bet din should not accept potential converts whose reason for converting is anything other than a sincere desire to join the Jewish People, nevertheless, if such a person does undergo a full conversion process they are considered Jewish according to halacha. It is possible that the Kutim did not fall into that category because they continued with their idolatrous practices even at the moment of their conversion. Nevertheless, today the community of Samaritans living in Israel are no longer idol worshipers, and there has been some level of acceptance of them into the larger Jewish community.


Bava Metzia 70a-b

Aside from the discussion of the technical rules and regulations that govern the laws of ribit (forbidden interest), our Gemara brings a series of statements in the realm of mussar – of ethics – that support the concept of lending without interest. The passage in Mishlei 28:8 teaches that someone who increases his wealth through charging interest, ultimately gathers it for someone who is gracious to the poor. In answer to the Gemara’s query – who is considered “gracious to the poor?” – Rav explains that it is a reference to the king, Shevor Malka.

Shevor MalkaShahpuhr – was the name of a number of Persian kings. Our Gemara is referring to the first king Shahpuhr, who continued his father’s success in wars against the Roman Empire, capturing the city of Netzivim and arriving at the border of Syria. In the course of a number of attacks, he not only defeated the Roman emperor Velrinus, but he captured him and held him until his death. With regard to internal matters, he was an open-minded leader, and allowed a good deal of freedom of religion. It appears that he showed an interest in Judaism and was on good terms with the amora Shmuel.

Most of the commentaries understand Rav’s teaching simply; that this is a reference to Shevor Malka, the king of Persia. Rav Hai Gaon suggests that it was Shevor Malka’s practice to confiscate money made by way of interest and distribute it to the poor. Thus it is understood to be a reference to a Persian king rather than a Jewish one, because if it were talking about a Jewish leader, the money would turn out to be used for a mitzvah purpose in the end, and ribit is perceived as unmitigated evil.

Others suggest that the comparison to Shevor Malka is not to be taken literally, and it is actually a reference to the amora Shmuel, who made a habit of taking money from interest collectors and distributing it to the poor.


Bava Metzia 71a-b

The passage in Sefer Shemot (22:24) teaches im kesef talveh et ami et he-ani imakh – “if you lend money to any of My people, even to the poor” – which is understood by Rav Yosef in the Gemara as teaching that lending to a Jewish person takes precedence over lending to a non-Jewish person; similarly lending to a poor person takes precedence over lending to a wealthy person.

The Me’iri derives from this that even lending to a non-Jew is considered to be a good deed, since we need to be taught that we should give priority to someone who is closer to us. Rav Hai Gaon rules that when lending to a non-Jew whose community does not charge interest on loans, Jews should not do so, either, since that would be considered a chillul Hashem.

These positions stand in stark contrast to the commentaries who interpret the passage in Sefer Devarim (23:21) to mean that it is a fulfillment of a positive commandment to charge interest when lending money to a non-Jew. The Rambam, for example, in Hilkhot Malveh ve-loveh (5:1), basing himself on a Sifrei, understands the pasuk in Devarim as it appears, which means that a Jew is obligated to charge interest when lending money to a non-Jew. The Ramban and many other rishonim disagree, basing themselves on the Gemara on the previous daf (70b), and argue that the Torah is simply contrasting the laws of taking ribit from a Jew – which is forbidden – with the laws of lending money to a non-Jew where it is permitted to charge interest, but that there is no requirement to do so. They prove their position by pointing to other cases where the Torah does a similar thing, e.g. when it says kol of tahor tochelu – every kosher bird you eat, which is not understood as a requirement to eat poultry, but as a positive restatement of the prohibition forbidden non-kosher birds.


Bava Metzia 72a-b

Our Gemara discusses a case of shetar she-katuv bo ribit – a contract or promissory note that has the forbidden interest written into it. We find that according to Rabbi Meir we penalize the lender and do not allow him to collect anything with this note, neither the loan itself nor the interest. The Chachamim argue, ruling that the lender can still collect the principal of the loan based on this note. The Gemara explains the argument as dependent on whether we penalize the permissible element of the agreement because of the forbidden part; Rabbi Meir believes that we do while the Chachamim believe that we do not.

In defining the case of shetar she-katuv bo ribit we find a disagreement between the Ramban and Tosafot. According to the Ramban, the note cannot possibly state clearly that this is a loan with forbidden interest, since in that case the note would be invalid according to all opinions. His argument is that witnesses who play a role in a forbidden act are, by definition, invalid witnesses. Without valid witnesses, the note has no legal standing. The Ramban explains that the argument in the Gemara would only be in a case where the interest is included as part of the sum total of money owed, but without stating that part of the money was ribit. Tosafot argue that the case described by the Ramban could not be considered a legal document, since the hidden ribit might actually be collected. A case where the ribit is clearly included as interest, however, may be a viable note. Tosafot do not assume that witnesses become invalid when they sign a document that includes ribit, since many people do not realize that agreed upon interest is a biblical prohibition, and their lack of knowledge would not disqualify them.


Bava Metzia 73a-b

Our Gemara tells of Rav Mari bar Rachel who lent money to a non-Jew and was holding – and living in – a house belonging to the non-Jew that acted as a guarantee on the loan. The non-Jew sold the house to Rava. After a year Rav Mari bar Rachel approached Rava in order to pay rent, explaining that the house was guaranteed to him for a year, during which time the non-Jew could not have removed him from the house. From this point on, however, Rava became the full owner of the house and Rav Mari bar Rachel wanted to pay him. In response, Rava said that had he known the circumstances he would not have purchased the house, but since he had bought it from the non-Jew he would keep their rules and allow Rav Mari bar Rachel to continue living in the house without payment until the loan was paid.

It should be noted that such an arrangement would be considered ribit – forbidden interest – under Jewish law, since Rav Mari bar Rachel was receiving free rent in addition to repayment of the loan. Rashi explains that it is permitted in this case since there is no real relationship between Rava and Rav Mari bar Rachel – the relationship is between them and the non-Jew. The Ra’avad suggests that since Rav Mari bar Rachel received his rights from a non-Jew, he can be treated as such, and under non-Jewish law this relationship is not considered interest, but a long-term sale.

Rav Mari bar Rachel was a fourth generation Babylonian amora. It appears that he was the son of a non-Jew named Isser who had kidnapped and married Rachel, the daughter of the great amora, Shmuel. After a time, Isser converted and was considered an upstanding member of the Jewish community. Nevertheless, since Mari had been conceived prior to Isser’s conversion, Mari is introduced to us in the Gemara as his mother’s son, rather than his father’s. Mari was a scholar of renown and we find him quoting Torah in the name of several different teachers, although he had a particularly close relationship with Rava, who played a role in preparing him for a position on communal leadership.


Bava Metzia 74a-b

Another situation that was perceived by the Sages to be considered ribit (forbidden interest) on a rabbinic level is a case where someone agrees to a price on a commodity before it is available in the marketplace. According to the Mishnah (72b) it is forbidden to pay for various commodities in advance, out of a concern that once established, the price will higher than what was paid, a difference that could be perceived as interest, since we might view the lower price as coming in exchange for the early payment. The Mishnah teaches, however, that once the commodity exists, it can be paid for, even before a market price has been established for it. Examples of this include a field that is ready for harvest, grapes or olives that have been collected to be pressed, and clay prepared by an artisan.

Our Gemara discusses the artisan’s clay – beitzim shel yotzer. Rabbi Meir rules that they have to be fully prepared before they can be paid for; Rabbi Yossi limits that ruling to white clay, but darker clay can be paid for at any time.

An artisan must prepare his clay carefully if he is to produce quality utensils. Raw clay is collected from the ground, broken up and mixed with water. Depending on the desired final product, other materials may be added to it, such as ash, sand, ground up bricks, etc. This mixture is well kneaded and prepared in the shape of balls, which are then dried out. Water is added when the artisan will begin to prepare the utensil. Darker clay is made of the simplest ingredients – clay, perhaps even mixed with ordinary earth – which gives it its color. It is found throughout Israel and is readily available at all times. White clay is made of the finest ingredients and is specially prepared for making unique utensils. This material is found in limited places and is significantly more expensive than the simple clay.


Bava Metzia 75a-b

When lending money, should the lender trust that the borrower will remember the loan and repay it, or is there a need to create a record attesting to the loan?

Our Gemara brings a teaching in the name of Rav Yehuda amar Rav that if someone lends money without having witnesses to the transaction, he transgresses the prohibition of lifnei iver lo titen michshol – do not put a stumbling block before the blind (Vayikra 19:14). Reish Lakish, quoting a passage in Tehillim (66:11) adds that he brings a curse upon himself, since if the borrower denies receiving the loan, people will curse the lender, accusing him of falsely claiming that he is owed money.

As an example of these teachings, the Gemara tells that Ravina was presented to Rav Ashi as someone who carefully follows all of the rulings of the sages. In an attempt to test him, one Friday afternoon – when all are busy and it is difficult to make complicated arrangements – Rav Ashi asked Ravina for a loan, claiming that he had an immediate business opportunity. Ravina responded by asking Rav Ashi to arrange for witnesses to see the transaction and write a promissory note. In answer to Rav Ashi’s question “even me!?” (i.e. am I not trustworthy to pay back a loan?) Ravina explained that especially someone who is focused on his study may forget about something as prosaic as a loan, which would lead Ravina to bring a curse upon himself.

The Me’iri argues that we should not accept Ravina’s statement literally, and that there is no reason to be more concerned that scholars will not pay their debts than will ordinary people. It should be noted that Ravina only offered one of the reasons for refraining from making a loan without witnesses – that he would bring a curse on himself. It would appear that he did not want to invoke the prohibition of lifnei iver, since he did not want to be in a position of accusing Rav Ashi – who initiated the loan – of transgressing the prohibition.


In addition to his monumental translation and commentary on the Talmud, Rabbi Steinsaltz has authored dozens of books and hundreds of articles on a variety of topics, both Jewish and secular. For more information about Rabbi Steinsaltz’s groundbreaking work in Jewish education, visit www.steinsaltz.org or contact the Aleph Society at 212-840-1166.

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