The Prohibition on Charging Interest as a Key Factor in a Robust Society
Rabbi Avishai Milner is the Rosh Yeshiva of the Neveh Shmuel Yeshiva High School, Named in Memory of Samuel Pinchas Ehrman
Let us imagine a very common scenario: An affluent person wishes to lend money to his needy friend. It is only logical – socially, as well as economically – that the lender be entitled to earn interest on his loan. Since every loan has a risk factor – as the borrower might not be able to pay back the loan – it is universally accepted that the interest on the loan compensates for the risk involved. Financially speaking, it also stands to good reason that a person should be able to use his money to make more money. Indeed, this is a logical and economical course of action.
Surprisingly, the Torah warns us no fewer than three times against taking interest of any kind. Why is this so?
The first two times the Torah mentions this prohibition (Shemot 22:24 and Vayikra 25:35), the reason seems to be obvious from the context: in these particular verses the Torah cautions us not to cause any form of injury to the foreigner (ger), the orphan and the widow – the most disadvantaged members of society – as well as to the poor, the needy and those who have lost everything.
Naturally, these people are more prone to exploitation and unfair treatment and for this reason the Torah cautions us not to take interest from these vulnerable persons. Rashi, on the verses in the book of Shemot, describes how cruel it is to take interest from the destitute and the disadvantaged:
“Neshech (interest) is like the bite (neshichat) of a snake that bites one’s heel, leaving only a tiny bruise. At first, one feels nothing, but then the venom flows and reaches the head. Such is interest. At first, one does not feel it, but then the interest inflates and deprives one of much money.”
Notwithstanding the above, this week’s portion does not deal with individuals on the margins of society – the impoverished and the helpless. Rather, the verse appears to be a standalone commandment:
“Thou shall not lend upon interest to thy brother, interest of money, interest of victuals, interest of anything that is lent upon interest. Unto a foreigner thou may lend upon interest, but unto thy brother thou shall not lend upon interest so that the Lord thy God may bless thee in all that thou put thy hand unto, in the land where thou will enter to possess it.” (Devarim 23:20)
Lifnim mishurat haDin – to act beyond the Letter of the Law
If so, what is the reason for the said prohibition? The Ramban’s words on the matter are well-known:
“… however, interest taken with the consent of both parties was only prohibited for the sake of promoting kinship and kindness, in keeping with God’s commandment (Vayikra 19:18) – ‘And you shall love thy neighbor as thyself,’ and as is written (Devarim 15: 9-10) – ‘Beware that there be not a base thought in thy heart…for this thing the Lord your God will bless you.’ In other words, you will be blessed by God for the kindness you do unto your brother by lending him money with no interest. The same holds true for shemitat kesafim (the cancellation of debts during the Sabbatical year) – this, too, is a pure act of kindness which exists among brethren only, and this is why one may exact payment from a non-Jew. One who behaves accordingly will be worthy of blessing. The Torah only promises blessing when it comes to acts of kindness and compassion, but does not promise blessing when it comes to [refraining from] thievery, extortion and fraud.”
The Ramban claims that there is nothing inherently wrong with taking interest; as such, it is permitted and appropriate, perhaps even recommended, to take interest from a non-Jew. In fact, a market economy works in this fashion precisely. The prohibition to take interest from “your brother” is only because he is your brother, a fellow Jew. Thus, as an act of kindness, and out of national solidarity and lifnim mishurat hadin, going beyond what is required by the book – you are commanded to forego the interest.
It follows that the prohibition to take interest belongs to the category of mitzvot that are acts of tzedakah, and for these, the Torah adds the words “…because of this thing the Lord thy God will bless thee in all thy work, and in all that thou put thy hand unto”.
Put more plainly, if you forgo the interest, and treat your brother with kindness, God will consider it a righteousness on your part, will pay you in kind, and bless the labor of your hands.
The difference between a laborer and a stock trader
Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch gives a broader reason for the prohibition to take interest and offers a profound and delightful explanation. It is not only about Jewish comradeship, he says. Rather, it is about building a productive, creative and hard-working society. Furthermore, a society based on skilled workers, farmers, merchants, private manufacturers and retailers – is a robust one.
A person who rises early each morning and sets out to his day’s labor plays a vital role in the world’s economy and industry, be it in hi-tech or low-tech, and takes part in Tikkun Olam. The soul of such a person is healthy and vital. For this is the natural course of the world and such is the nature of man. This is how one builds a healthy society, both of body and soul.
Contrarily, a society which is only based on monetary affairs, interest rate revenues and profits accrued from the trading of stocks; one in which many people no longer engage in productive work, Tikkun Olam or manual labor – will soon become dishonorable, tainted by economic and ethical corruption.
Oftentimes, when seeing a hard-working grocer or a farmer that rises early to work the land, or even a car mechanic that does an honest day’s work – my heart fills with envy. For one cannot but admire the soundness of spirit, the healthy mind and the fear of God that results from engaging in productive labor and Tikkun Olam.
According to Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, this is the very essence of the prohibition to take interest:
“The prohibition to take interest nullifies the corrupting influences of money. By means of this prohibition, labor will become the key factor to society’s welfare. Even a person of means will have to engage in work in order to gain revenue from his money, which would turn barren and unproductive otherwise.”
The prohibition to take interest is an excellent means to building a robust society, whose members are healthy in both body and spirit and engage in creation, production and Tikkun Olam.