Likkutei Sichos-Behar: Understanding the prohibition and obligation of Ribis and how everything you own contains a divine purpose relevant to your soul

Parshas Behar

Understanding the prohibition and obligation of Ribis and how everything you own contains a divine purpose relevant to your soul

(Based on Likkutei Sichos Vol. 12 Sicha 2)

This week’s Parsha, Parshas Behar, speaks of the prohibition of collecting interest from another fellow Jew. This prohibition only applies against lending money from one Jew to another Jew in exchange for interest. However, it is permitted for a Jew to give an interest-based loan to a Gentile, and furthermore, he’s even obligated to do so. In this talk the Rebbe delves into the logics and understanding behind this contrast of prohibition versus obligation between a Jewish and Gentile borrower. At first, the Rebbe questions the obligation of collecting interest from a Gentile, being that the Torah prohibits stealing from a Gentile or even tricking him in business. Accordingly, it is strange that the Torah would allow to collect interest on a loan to a Gentile if it is viewed according to Torah as morally wrong, and similar to stealing. In truth, however, the Rebbe explains that the prohibition against collecting interest on a loan is not due to it being considered like stealing at all, as a person has the pure legal and moral right to demand payment for money that he had to part with and could not use to invest to make more profit in the interim. Furthermore, it is done with the full consent of the borrower and is therefore not considered like stealing at all. The prohibition is a pure Torah decree and is similar to all other commandments between man and G-d [i.e. Bein Adam Lamakom], and is not within the realm of commands of men and his fellow [Bein Adam Lechaveiro]. This however does not suffice to explain why the Torah commands one to specifically collect interest on the loan to a Gentile. To explain this the Rebbe delves into the law relating to what is to be done if the lender transgressed and collected interest on the loan. Must the lender return the interest money to the borrower? Can the borrower forgive the reimbursement of the interest that he gave? Is the borrower to be encouraged to forgive the reimbursement of the interest? The answer to these questions leads to a magnificent discovery found in the Hasidic teachings regarding the Divine sparks found in objects, and the special connection that they have with their owners. This not only leads to a clearer understanding of the various detailed laws surrounding interest, and why it is an actual command to collect it from a Gentile, but furthermore leads to a new appreciation of the items that G-d has granted you, and the items that G-d has not granted you or has taken away.

 

Explorations of the Sicha:

1.      Is collecting interest on a loan a moral and monetary wrongdoing, or is it forbidden simply due to a decree of G-d?

2.      Why does the Torah command one to lend money to a Gentile in exchange for interest?

3.      Is it permitted to steal from a Gentile?

4.      Can a borrower choose to forgive the interest that he paid the lender?

5.      Why should a borrower be instructed to refuse reimbursement of his interest payments?

6.      What special connection does the item of a person share with him and what divine lessons can we learn from this?

1. The prohibition of collecting interest on a loan-Gentile versus Jew:

It states in the verse in this week’s Parsha[1], “When your friend becomes destitute. A resident and citizen, he shall live with you. You shall not take from him interest.” The sages in the Talmud[2] explain that the above prohibition against taking interest only applies against taking interest from one’s “brother,” and does not apply against taking interest from a Gentile or citizen. It is for this reason that the verse states the prohibition in the singular tense, being that it only applies to loans to a Jew, and is not saved in a plural tense which would imply that the prohibition applies by loans to all mankind. The fact the Torah mentions a Gentile resident in the verse is only for the point of teaching us that one has a command to support him if he is destitute, and not to forbid the taking of interest from him.

2. The mitzvah and obligation to collect interest from a Gentile:

From the above Talmudic statement, it is understood that there is no prohibition against collecting interest from a loan to a Gentile, however, it does not state whether this is obligatory or voluntary. The Rambam[3] however clarifies that by Gentiles who are not defined as Ger Toshav, it is an actual obligation to collect interest from them, and hence there exists three different levels in the interest prohibition.

  • Taking interest from a Jew-prohibition: It is biblically forbidden for a Jew to collect interest from a loan to another Jew.
  • Taking interest from a Ger Toshav-allowance: It is permitted, but not obligatory, for one to collect interest from a loan to a Ger Toshav [which is defined as a Gentile living in the land of Israel who has accepted upon himself the laws governing the Gentiles].
  • Taking interest from a Gentile-obligation:[4] It is permitted and obligatory to collect interest from a loan to a Gentile. This is a positive command in the Torah.

3. The prohibition to steal from a Gentile:

It requires further analysis as to why the Torah permits, and even obligates, the taking of interest from a loan to a Gentile but prohibits stealing from a Gentile. The law is that it is biblically forbidden to steal anything from either a Jew or Gentile.[5] Furthermore, it is biblically forbidden to swindle or trick any person in business, whether a Jew or Gentile.[6] The simple explanation as brought in the Talmud[7] is that by a Gentile, the Torah only prohibits taking his money against his will or without his knowledge, however interest which is collected with the full consent of the borrower, the Torah does not prohibit by a Gentile. In other words, stealing and tricking a Gentile in business is a lot more severe than arranging for a collection of interest on a loan with the consent of the Gentile borrower, and is thus only the former matter that the Torah prohibits with regards to a Gentile. [However, since the individual borrowing the money feels forced to do so, and feels forced to accept upon himself the payment of interest, therefore one can suggest that the Torah prohibits doing so by a Jew, as it is not fully in accordance to his will.] This explanation, however, only suffices to explain why it is permitted to lend money to a gentile in exchange of interest, but does not explain why it is an actual obligation, and why if one does not lend money with interest then he transgresses as a positive command. After all, we can all agree that interest contains an element of greed and causes one’s friend to lose money, and is thus described as Neshech by the verse, which means to bite or sting, as interest is similar to a small bite which grows from day to day to become very big. Hence, why should there be a positive command to specifically collect interest from a Gentile when one lends money to him?

4. Does the borrower have the right to forgive the interests?

The answer to the above can be understood through first introducing the law regarding if the borrower has the right to forgive restitution for the interest payments that he gave him. According to the opinion of the Geonim[8], the Torah did not give the borrower the right to forgive his interest payment, and hence even if he already paid the interest to the lender, his forgiveness is irrelevant, and the borrower must pay him back the interest that he took. The reason for this is because the entire idea of interest is done under the consent of the borrower, and nonetheless the Torah prohibited it. Hence, we see that the Torah negated the forgiveness of the borrower in this matter, and hence the borrower’s forgiveness does not help in any way to change the law. However, according to the opinion of the Rosh[9], the although the forgiveness and consent of the borrower does not help to initially permit an interest loan, if the interest was already paid to the lender, then the forgiveness of the borrower permits the lender to keep the interest money. Practically, the final ruling in the Shulchan Aruch[10] is like this latter opinion that the forgiveness of the borrower permits the lender to keep the interest money that he was already paid, even though the interest prohibition was transgressed by the interest payment being made.

5. The interest money really belongs to the lender and it is just that the Torah prohibited him from taking it:

The position of the Geonim who invalidate the forgiveness of the borrower even after the interest was paid requires further analysis. After all, the Torah never explicitly prohibits the lender from keeping the money in such a case that the lender does not mind, and the general rule is that all monetary matters are binding when under the agreement of the two parties. Thus, why does the borrower not retain the right to forgive the interest money from being paid back to him. The Ritva[11] explains this matter as follows: The Torah’s requirement for the lender to return the interest payments back to the borrower is not based on the regular monetary laws, in which we only require payment from one party to the other when they in truth owe the money to the other party. For example, when someone lends someone money then the borrower is legally obligated to pay back the lender due to a valid monetary claim. However, in the case of interest payments, the borrower does not really have any monetary claim against the lender being that he agreed for the interest money to be given to him in exchange for the loan. It is only the Torah which instructs and demands for the interest payment to be returned. In other words, the obligation of restitution of the interest money is not due to a legal monetary claim between the borrower and lender, but rather due to a G-dly instruction. The lender is not instructed to return the money because he legally and morally owes it to the borrower but rather because he owes it to G-d who prohibits him from keeping the money. Accordingly, explains the Ritva, it does not help for the borrower to forgive the restitution of the interest payment, as it is not his legal claim, but rather the claim of the Torah, and he cannot choose to forgive the Torah’s claim for the money. As for the counterargument of the Rosh against this approach, one can simply say that in their opinion the Torah made the reimbursement of the interest payment be considered a legal monetary right of the borrower for the sake of making up for his lost money. Now, just as a lender retains the legal right to collect the payment of a loan, and likewise retains the right to forgive the loan, so too by the interest payment, the borrower has the right to forgive it, as the Torah was worried about his loss of money of which he has the right to forgive.

All in all, it ends up that from a pure civil perspective of between man and his fellow [i.e. Bein Adam Lechaveiro], there is nothing wrong with a lender collecting interest from his loan to a borrower, and doing so is not considered stealing or cheating or anything of the like. The only reason that it is forbidden to be done is because G-d prohibited it, and hence if he transgressed and collected interest on the loan, his requirement to reimburse the borrower is not due to a civil obligation between man and his fellow, but rather due to an obligation towards G-d who requires one to reimburse the interest loss of the borrower.

6. Refusing to accept the reimbursement of the interest payment:

Despite the above law which requires the lender to return the interest payment to the borrower, the law is that we instruct the borrower in such a case to not accept the interest money, and instruct him to forgive its reimbursement.[12] Now, this sounds like a very strange law, as if the Torah in truth requires him to return the money then why should Jewish law instruct for this command to be forgiven? This matter can be understood through first introducing a general perspective of how the Torah views the money of a Jew.

7. All money contains Divine sparks

The sages[13] state that the Torah has mercy on the money of the Jewish people. The reason for this is as follows: Everything that G-d provides a Jew with is for the sake of him using it in divine service. Accordingly, all money that is in the possession of a Jew has an instruction and obligation of being used for a purpose in the service of G-d. In the teachings of Chassidus this matter is taken a step deeper, as it is explained there that all the money of a Jew contains Divine sparks that relates specifically to his soul.[14] Accordingly, it is understood that interest payments from a loan contain some connection to the lender, being that from a pure civil and monetary legal perspective he has the full right to request interest payment for his loan, which reimburses the profit that he could have made if the money were to have remained with him without being lent. Meaning, that interest payments contain some sparks of holiness that belong to the lender, being that he has the full legal monetary right to collect it, and it is only the Torah who made it prohibited from being collected due to its own reasons. Nonetheless, due to that the Torah prohibited collecting interest, therefore it is not possible to refine and elevate the sparks through collecting the interest payments that rightfully belong to him, and rather the only way to elevate the spark is through fulfilling the Torah’s command of not collecting it. This is similar to the method of elevating the sparks that are found within all prohibited matters, which is through not transgressing the prohibition when one is faced with it.

Accordingly, we can now explain why once the interest money is already collected by the lender, we instruct the borrower to refuse to accept its reimbursement. In truth, this money contains a soul connection to the lender, as he had the legal civil right to collect it, and once collected it becomes his money like any other money. It is only due to the Torah’s command that he is obligated to return it. Thus, if it’s possible to find a Halachic way to allow the interest money to remain with the lender, and circumvent the Torah’s obligation for it to be returned to the borrower, then one should try to do so in order so the lender can elevate his money and the divine sparks that are found in it which are relevant to his soul. Hence, we instruct the borrower to refuse to accept the return of the interest money from the lender, and in essence forgive its reimbursement, in order to Halachically permit for it to remain with the lender and allow it to be elevated by him.

8. Understanding why we are commanded to collect interest from a loan to a Gentile:

Based on all the above, we can now explain why the Torah obligates one to collect interest on a loan to a Gentile. Although it is forbidden to steal even from a Gentile, as we explained above, this is because stolen money does not have any legal or spiritual belonging to this person who stole it, and it is fully connected only to the Gentile owner, and there is thus no legal or moral right for someone to take that money away from its rightful owner. However, the interest money of a loan is much different, as from a pure civil and monetary perspective the lender has the right to demand its payment, and its payment legally belongs to the lender. Due to this, this interest money contains Divine sparks that belong to the root of the soul of the lender, which need to be elevated by him. Accordingly, since the Torah did not prohibit collecting interest from a loan to a Gentile, therefore one is obligated and commanded in doing so, in order to collect the money that rightfully belongs to him and elevate the Divine sparks found in them. [In other words, since the lender has the legal right to collect interest on his loan, and the Torah does not prohibit collecting interest from a Gentile, therefore one is required to collect the interest which rightfully belongs to him in order to elevate the sparks.] Furthermore, some opinions[15] hold that not only is one obligated to ask for interest whenever he decides to give a loan to a Gentile, but furthermore, if one sees that a Gentile is in need of a loan, then he is obligated to take advantage of this opportunity and to lend him the money with interest. The reason for this is because the fact that he was made aware of the Gentile who is in need of the loan is a sign from heaven that there are Divine sparks found within the money of the Gentile that belong to the soul of this Jew. Hence, one is required to take this opportunity and lend him the money for the sake of collecting interest, in order to bring the Divine sparks into his possession and elevate them appropriately.

 

The divine lesson:

Everything that a Jew owns is with divine providence and contains Divine purpose. All items that G-d has blessed to enter your possession contain a connection with your soul and require elevation for the sake of service of G-d. Several lessons, and perspectives, can be learned from this idea:

1)      The severity of stealing: Stealing is not only a moral, civil, and Torah prohibition, but likewise causes a delay in the mission of elevation of the Divine sparks. Every item that a person owns belongs to them and has a special connection to their soul. When one steals an item and abstains the rightful owner from being able to use it and elevate it, he causes a delay in their Divine mission, and the Divine mission of the world to elevate the Divine sparks.

2)      Not to be jealous: There is no need to be jealous of another individual who owns more, or more expensive, items than oneself. G-d provides everyone with the exact items that he needs for his divine service, and that contain a relation with his soul. If one does not own luxury items like his friend, it is because it has no relevance to him, as opposed to his friend who needs these items to fulfill his divine mission.

3)      Not to over fret over lost items and things that break in your possession: Some people have more luck than others in losing things, and causing loss or damage to the items that they own. For example, some people have the “luck” of breaking their cell phone at least once a year. This can be quite frustrating, and make one very angry with himself and others if the damage was due to negligence on someone else’s part. However, from the above we learn a new perspective to help cope with one’s loss. Being that everything that one owns has a connection to his soul, and contains Divine sparks that he, and only he, can elevate and refine, therefore it is possible that if G-d decided for one to no longer have an item, that his divine mission with that item is deemed to have been completed. In the event that one is required to replace the lost or damaged item with another item of the like because he cannot live without it, then certainly this is because this new item has a connection with his soul and the time has come for him to begin elevating it. Accordingly, next time you, or your wife or child, lose or damage an item and you are required to purchase a new one, think of the above perspective of divine providence to help alleviate your pain of the loss, and view it as a further opportunity to fulfill your Divine mission on earth.

 

[1] Vayikra 25:35-36

[2] Bava Metiza 71a

[3] Rambam Hilchos Malveh Veloveh beginning of chapter 5

[4] This ruling can also be found in the Rambam’s Sefer Hamitzvos Asei 198; Admur Y.D. Hilchos Ribis 75; Bach Y.D. 159

[5] Admur Hilchos Gezeila Ugineiva 1; Michaber and Tur C.M. 348; 359; Rambam Hilchos Geneiva

[6] Admur Hilchos Onah Ugineiva’s Daas 11; Rambam Hilchos Mechira 18; See Michaber and Tur C.M. 228:6

[7] Bava Metzia 61a

[8] Brought in Rambam Malveh Veloveh 4:13 and in Rosh and Ritva on Bava Metzia ibid

[9] Rosh Bava Metiza ibid; Opinion of Rambam

[10] Michaber Y.D. 160:5; Admur Hilchos Ribis 5

[11] Bava Metiza ibid

[12] See Michaber Y.D. 161:7; Rambam Malveh 4:5; Bava Kama 94b; Rivash 417

[13] Rosh Hashanah 27a

[14] See Keser Shem Tov 218; Or Torah of Maggid 101

[15] See Kneses Hagedola Y.D. 159

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