Thursday, January 23, 2014

Mitzvah 343: Prohibiting usury


Mitzvah 68 (according to the count of Sefer haChinuch) prohibits a beit din (Jewish court) from involving itself in loans with interest payments. This is a direct result of mitzvah #343, which prohibits Jews from lending to each other, or borrowing from each other, with interest charges. Interest is defined as payment for rental of the lender's money.

Charging interest makes perfect economic sense - in a 0% loan, the best case scenario is that the lender is re-paid on time, but even in such a case he has lost use of his funds for the period of the loan, and he has lost the rate of inflation. This is why lenders routinely charge for the right to hold their money. For one's family, though, one is expected to go beyond the norm and extend a loan without charging interest. Within halachah, a borrower cannot forgive his right to an interest-free loan; he has no more right than the lender to dissolve the bonds of family that connect every Jew.

The Talmud was very harsh regarding those who violate this law. In one example (Bava Metzia 71a), Rabbi Yosi taught, "Come see the blindness of people who lend money for interest!  Ordinarily, if a person calls another person 'wicked,' that person will battle him to the death. These people, though, bring witneses, a scribe, and pen and ink, and write and seal a document saying, 'This person denies the Gd of Israel!'" 

Rabbi Yisroel Reisman (Laws of Ribbis, Introduction) cites a similarly sharp observation regarding the practice of charging interest: In Europe, a moneylender passed away. He had made his fortune by collecting interest from the poor of the town. In vengeance, the Chevra Kadisha (burial society) demanded a large sum of money for the grave, angering the heirs. The matter came to Rabbi Akiva Eiger. "How appropriate," he responded. "The normal price of a grave assumes that the purchaser will use it for a limited time, until the resurrection of the dead. We are taught that one who takes interest, though, does not get resurrected. As such, he will remain in the grave for eternity, and he should therefore pay a higher price for use of the grave!"

Have a great day,

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