Mishpatim: Not to Dun a Destitute Borrower

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14 Jan 2007

Our parsha admonishes the lender, “When you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, don’t be to him as a collector; don’t impose interest on him” (Shemot 22:24). The expression “don’t be to him as a collector” commands the lender not to hound a borrower who is unable to pay the loan. The Sages were very strict about this prohibition, and warned that it is forbidden not only to openly demand payment but even to show himself before the borrower in a way which would cause him embarrassment (SA CM 97:2).

In a number of previous columns we have suggested that the Torah’s laws regarding loans are not intended only to relieve the economic distress of the borrower, but also or even primarily to avoid a situation where the lender’s economic advantage is exploited to give him some kind of social superiority or mastery. We cited some commentators who mention the verse “For the borrower is the servant of the lender” (Mishlei) in the context of the laws of interest (Rav Natan Steinhartz) or the laws of release of loans (Rav Avraham Kook). The ideal is where the loan is not an expression of superiority or mastery, but rather a simple commercial transaction or even better, an expression of equality – the lender’s desire to help the borrower through temporary adversity.

In his commentary to this verse, Rav Shimshon R’ Hirsch explains that this approach is implicit in the very Hebrew expression used for loan: “halva’a”. The root of this word is “lavah”, which means “to accompany”. Rav Hirsch points out further that in general the accompaniment is meant to benefit the other person. For example, this is the word used by Leah when she hopes that as a result of the birth of Levi, “my husband will accompany (yilaveh) me.”

Rav Hirsch writes: “The object [of the verb] is the borrower himself; thus it writes ‘et’ My people and the poor [the word et precedes a direct object]. The money is the means.”

Thus the literal meaning of the verse is: “If through money you bring My people, the poor among you, to accompany you, don’t be to him as a collector.”

This linguistic insight also fits in with an important aspect of the laws of charity. In many cases, we find that a loan is considered even a higher level of charity than a donation (See SA YD 249:6). One reason is that while a donation involves a one-time interaction with the poor person, a loan by its nature creates an ongoing relationship which is severed only after a period of time when the loan is paid.

A similar message is found in the passage in Bava Batra (9b) which states that one who gives money to a poor person merits six blessings, but one who appeases him with words merits eleven; as well as in the commentary of the Rambam on tractate Avot where he explains that the admonition “All is according to the magnitude of the act” teaches that it is better to give a small amount of charity many times than to give the same amount in a one-time gift.

The common message of all these laws is that when it comes to giving charity, the human dimension of the aid is at least as important as the economic one.

Rabbi Asher Meir is the author of the book Meaning in Mitzvot, distributed by Feldheim. The book provides insights into the inner meaning of our daily practices, following the order of the 221 chapters of the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh.

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