Ribbis: Reasons and Rationales

R. Yair Hoffman writes:

[L]et us try to provide some philosophical explanation for the underlying prohibition of Ribis. Imagine the following scenario:

The family lives in the old country. The eldest son has emigrated and has made it to New York and has an apartment in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Another son is about to seek his fortune in New York and needs a place to stay. He arrives at the brother’s house. The brother tells him, “Look, brother, you can stay in my apartment, no problem. And I will even charge you less than the Motel Six rates. It will only be $40 per night!” The parents would certainly be upset at their eldest son’s behavior. This is not the way one behaves with a brother.

ONE FAMILY

By the same token, the Torah views all Jewish people as one family. When a brother or sister needs a loan, therefore, we do not charge them interest, just as we would not charge them rent when they stay by us. Indeed, there are six prohibitions in the Torah associated with charging interest. The prohibition is called “Ribis” interest or “Neshech.” Anyone who has ever taken out an interest bearing loan can appreciate the fact that Neshech comes from the Hebrew root word, “bite.” Interest payments certainly do feel like a serious snake bite.

I do not understand this at all: by this logic, the Torah should have prohibited the charging of rent for residential property!

My friend and colleague H.S. cites this sort of rationale in the name of R. Shimon Schwab:

In Parshas Behar, the Torah forbids us to charge another Jew interest. It is not only prohibited for a lender to assess interest, but a borrower is also forbidden to voluntarily pay it. The commentaries have grappled with the rationale for this prohibition. Is there something wrong with charging interest when both parties agree? If one is permitted to charge a rental fee for the use of that person’s car for a week, why can’t one charge a “rental fee” if someone wants to have use of that person’s money for that same amount of time?

Rav Shimon Schwab offers the following explanation: Indeed, in the world of business, interest has its place. A functional economy relies on loans, which are only likely to occur if interest may be charged. In the realm of family, however, interest does not belong. Imagine if your brother or sister needed a loan and, despite having the money readily available, you would only offer the loan with interest! Such an action would be distasteful and inappropriate. The Jewish people, explains Rav Schwab, are all one family. The Torah stresses this by describing the impoverished person as “your brother” and instructing us to let our “brother” live along with us. As long as we view our fellow Jews as family, loans will be granted willingly without the need or desire to charge interest. Our Parsha describes a number of scenarios in which a Jew may become impoverished and need assistance to resolve his situation; in each case, the Torah describes him as “your brother.” If we can successfully adopt this perspective and always view our fellow Jews as our brothers and
sisters, then – like any close-knit family – we will be there for each other in times of need and be prepared to offer assistance without desire for compensation.

But once again, this argument proves far too much:

Imagine if your brother or sister needed a place to live and, despite having a suitable residence readily available, you would only offer it to him at market rent! Such an action would be distasteful and inappropriate.

Incidentally, R. Schwab’s great predecessor, R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, while agreeing with the basic premise that charging interest is not inherently immoral, understands the rationale for the prohibition quite differently:

“I would like to close by sharing with you a thought from Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch about the reason why the Torah prohibited interest. He notes that if the Torah considered charging interest to be inherently immoral, it would have banned charging interest from non-Jews, and also would have prohibited only the lender and not the borrower. Rather, Rav Hirsch notes, the Torah’s prohibition is to demonstrate that the capital we receive from Hashem is so that we donate tzedakah and provide loans, and thereby fulfill our share in building and maintaining a Torah community. The Torah’s goal in banning the use of capital for interest-paying loans is to direct excess funds to chesed and tzedakah.”

Once again, however, this explanation fails to distinguish between loaning money at interest and other forms of investment. Why is making an equity investment in a business any more legitimate than investing in the same business by lending it money at interest?

The truth is that it is really quite difficult to offer a rationale for the prohibition of charging interest that will be completely satisfying to the modern mind, as I discuss in my weekly halachah column for this past פרשת בהר:

In parashas Behar (25:36-37), the Torah forbids usury. The prohibitions against usury, as well as reprobation of the usurer and approbation of he who avoids usury, are reiterated throughout the Bible (Shemos 22:24; Devarim 23:20-21; Yechezkel 18:13,17; Tehillim 15:5). The Torah never explains, however, why usury is prohibited. A number of rationales have been proposed, although none appear entirely satisfactory:

  • Shaarei Yosher (end of Shaar 5) explains that usury is actually a form of theft. Despite the fact that the borrower willingly accepts the interest obligation, his consent is considered to have been given erroneously, since we presume that he does not fully realize the harm that he is thereby inflicting upon himself. This would not seem to apply, however, to loans with reasonable interest rates that are clearly beneficial to the borrowers, such as prime mortgage loans taken out by homebuyers.
  • Radak (Tehillim ibid.) declares that an agreement to pay interest is tantamount to a contract entered into under economic duress, since the borrower needs the loan. It is difficult to understand, however, why such an agreement is different from any other contract. E.g., a tenant only agrees to pay rent since he needs a place to live!
  • Some suggest that since there is a mitzvah to lend money to one’s fellow Jew, the charging of interest is forbidden under the general prohibition against charging for the performance of a mitzvah (see Shut. Avnei Nezer YD 159:3). This rationale would not seem to apply, however, with regard to money that the lender would otherwise be investing for profit, since the prohibition against charging for the performance of a mitzvah contains an exception for the recouping of opportunity costs entailed by such performance (cf. Bris Yehudah Ch. 1 n. 10).
  • Some suggest that since interest is too reliable a source of income, it eliminates the need for bitachon (reliance) upon Hashem (Kli Yakar Vayikra ibid.; Introduction to Klala De’Ribisa). The idea that taking advantage of the best available opportunities to better one’s lot can be inconsistent with bitachon is, however, a controversial one (see Commentary of Rambam to the Mishnah, Pesachim 56.; Akeidas Yitzchak #26 p. 221).

My weekly parashah lectures for פרשת בהר on this topic, and accompanying handouts, are available at the Internet Archive.

כי כל העדה כולם קדושים

R. Yaakov Hoffman writes (discussing the Barkan Winery Ethiopian controversy):

Run by some of the most right-wing anti-Zionist rabbis in Jerusalem, the “Eidah” (or just “Badatz”) is probably the most widely accepted kosher certifier in the world. It is known for a stringent approach to almost every issue in Jewish dietary law and uncompromising enforcement of its standards in the products it certifies.

Almost every issue, perhaps, but certainly not every one. I recently encountered a kashrus question (also in the area of מאכלי עכו”ם) on which the Eidah is apparently outflanked on the right by several leading ציוני authorities: the applicability of the requirement of בישול ישראל to טחינה (“tahini”) and [Tahini] halvah. R. Mordechai Eliyahu ruled that these foods are forbidden to both Sephardim and Ashkenazim. He rejects the position of the Eidah that the problem of בישול עכו”ם does not apply since sesame is edible raw, arguing that it is edible raw only על ידי הדחק:

בישולי עכו”ם בטחינה – דעת הרב אליהו

שאלה:

הגיע לאוזני שמועה בשם הרב מרדכי אליהו שליט”א שיש בעיית כשרות ארצית בחומוס וטחינה ויש להמנע מלאכלם האם זה נכון?

תשובה:

בטחינה ובחלבה ישנה בעיה חמורה של בישולי גויים בגלל שלא מעט מהמפעלים המייצרים טחינה, חלבה ושומשום קלוי משתמשים בגוי שמפעיל את מערכת הקליה של השומשום וכן מכניס את השומשום לקליה בתנור ויש בזה איסור בישולי גויים.

ערכתי ביקור במפעל רושדי בואדי ערה ליד אום אל פאחם ושם הוסבר לי שגויים מפעילים את מערכת הקליה של השומשום על כל שלביה, כמו כן מצאתי שם שהשורש המבושל לצורך יצור החלבה ומהוה מרכיב חיוני מאוד בחלבה גם הוא מבושל על ידי גויים. מכיוון שסברתי שיש בעיה של בשולי גויים ערכתי בירור עם בד”ץ העדה החרדית (שנותנים הכשר לטחינה ולחלבה זו). קיבלתי תשובה בכתב של ועד הכשרות של הבד”ץ שאין בעיה של בישולי גויים כיוון ששומשום נאכל כמות שהוא חי. פניתי עם התשובה הכתובה של הבד”ץ למו”ר הרב מרדכי אליהו שליט”א והוא פסק שיש איסור של בישולי גויים גם בטחינה וגם בחלבה והאיסור הוא לספרדים ולאשכנזים כיוון ששומשום אינו נאכל חי אלא ע”י הדחק ולכן חל עליו איסור בישולי גויים והשורש גם הוא אסור משום בישולי גויים.

ישנם מפעלים נוספים המייצרים חלבה וטחינה בהשגחת בד”ץ העדה החרדית ובכולם אם גוי מפעיל את מערכת הקליה והכנסת השומשום לתנור וכן אם גוי מבשל את השורש הרי שהם אסורים משום בשולי גויים לשיטת מו”ר הרב מרדכי אליהו שליט”א שפסקיו מקובלים על ציבורים וקהילות רבות בישראל. הבעיה של בישולי גויים קיימת גם בחומוס שמערבבים בו טחינה כזו וכן בסלטים וכן במאפים ובעוגות שמוסיפים בהם טחינה או חלבה שיש בהם בשולי גויים. אני מקווה שהבדצי”ם יקבלו עליהם את פסיקתו של מו”ר הרה”ג הראשל”צ הרב מרדכי אליהו שליט”א אבל עד אז יש בעיה עם כל המוצרים של טחינה, חלבה וסומסום קלוי.

בימים אלה אנו שוקדים ובודקים אפשרות להשגחה מיוחדת שתינתן על בישול ישראל לכל המוצרים האלה שיש בהם מתוצרת שומשום טחינה או חלבה וכן למוצרים אחרים.
הרב דוד לחיאני – רב בית החולים זיו בצפת.

R. Dov Lior is more lenient, since sesame is edible raw at least על ידי הדחק, but even he permits טחינה produced by non-Jews “only if there is no other option”:

שאלה:

האם מותר לאכול טחינה, חומוס, ושאר מוצרים העשויים משומשום, או שאסור משום שגויים מבשלים את השומשום?

תשובה:

בהלכה כתוב שדבר שנאכל חי, ונכרי בישל אותו, אין בו איסור בישולי עכו”ם. המחבר בשולחן ערוך (יורה-דעה, קיג) מביא שתי דעות בדבר שנאכל על-ידי הדחק, וגוי בישל אותו. דעה ראשונה אומרת שיש בזה משום בישולי עכו”ם, ודעה שניה אומרת שאין בזה משום בישולי עכו”ם. שומשום נאכל על ידי רוב בני האדם אחרי קליה, למרות שהטבעונים אוכלים כמות שהוא. לדעתי, אם אין אפשרות אחרת, והמפעל היחידי שעושה את הקליה עובדים בו גוים, אפשר לסמוך על השיטה המקילה. ועוד הסבירו לי, שהקליה רק משביחה, אבל אפשר לאכול את זה גם לפני הקליה. לכן נראה לי למעשה שלכתחילה ראוי להחמיר, אבל אם אין ברירה אחרת, אפשר לאכול את זה.

R. Zalman Melamed is lenient without any qualms, albeit for an entirely different reason: the heating of the sesame before is squeezed is not considered “cooking” at all:

שאלה:

מה דעת הרב לגבי הבעייה שהעלה הרב דוד לחיאני – רב בית החולים זיו בצפת בתשובתו באתר זה לגבי טחינה וכדומה שלפחות חלק מהמרכיבים מבושלים ע”י גויים. בתשובתו הרב לחיאני ציין שהבד”ץ ממשיך לתת להם כשרות.

תשובה:

אני מכיר את אופן עשית הטחינה. לעניות דעתי חימום השומשומין לפני סחיטתם אינו גדר של בישול ולכן אין לזה גדר של בישולי עכו”ם.

About half a year ago, I gave a couple of mini-haburos discussing the applicability of the principle of בטלה דעתו אצל כל אדם to the standard of נאכל כמות שהוא חי; they are available at the Internet Archive: I, II.

Frankenstein: Origins

An Account of some Experiments made on the Body of a Criminal immediately after Execution, with Physiological and Practical Observations. By Andrew Ure, M.D.M.G.S.

Read at the Glasgow Literary Society, Dec. 10, 1818

Convulsions accidentally observed in the limbs of dead frogs, originally suggested to Galvani, the study of certain phenomena, which from him have been styled Galvanic. He ascribed these movements to an electrical fluid or power, innate in the living frame, or capable of being evolved by it, which he denominated Animal Electricity. …

Many experiments have been performed, in this country and abroad, on the bodies of criminals, soon after their execution. Vassali, Julio, and Rossi, made an ample set, on several bodies decapitated at Turin. They paid particular attention to the effect of Galvanic electricity on the heart, and other involuntary muscles; a subject of much previous controversy. …

Most of the above experiments were however made, either without a voltaic battery, or with piles, feeble in comparison with those now employed. Those indeed performed on the body of a criminal, at Newgate, in which the limbs were violently agitated; the eyes opened and shut; the mouth and jaws worked about; and the whole face thrown into frightful convulsions, were made by Aldini, with, I believe, a considerable series of voltaic plates.

[Ure spends some time discussing various theories of the relationship between electricity and life, and then continues:]

These general physiological views will serve, I hope, as no inappropriate introduction to the detail of the galvanic phenomena, exhibited here on the 4th of November, in the body of the murderer Clydsdale; and they may probably guide us to some valuable practical inferences.

The subject of these experiments, was a middle sized, athletic, and extremely muscular man, about thirty years of age. He was suspended from the gallows nearly an hour, and made no convulsive struggle after he dropped; while a thief executed along with him, was violently agitated for a considerable time. He was brought to the anatomical theatre of our university in about ten minutes after he was cut down. His face had a perfectly natural aspect, being neither livid nor tumefied; and there was no dislocation of his neck.

Dr. Jeffray, the distinguished Professor of Anatomy, having on the previous day requested me to perform the galvanic experiments, I sent to his theatre with this view, next morning, my minor voltaic battery, consisting of 270 pairs of four inch plates, with wires of communication, and pointed metallic rods with insulating handles, for the more commodious application of the electric power. About five minutes before the police arrived with the body, the battery was charged with a dilate nitro-sulphuric acid, which speedily brought it into a state of intense action. The dissections were skilfully executed by Mr. Marshall, under the superintendance of the Professor.

Exp 1. A large incision was made into the nape of the neck, close below the occiput. The posterior half of the atlas vertebra was then removed by bone forceps, when the spinal marrow was brought into view. A considerable incision was at the same time made in the left hip, through the great gluteal muscle, so as to bring the sciatic nerve into sight; and a small cut was made in the heel. From neither of these did any blood flow. The pointed rod connected with one end of the battery was now placed in contact with the spinal marrow, while the other rod was applied to the sciatic nerve. Every muscle of the body was immediately agitated, with convulsive movements, resembling a violent shuddering from cold. The left side was most powerfully convulsed at each renewal of the electric contact. On moving the second rod from the hip to the heel, the knee being previously bent, the leg was thrown out with such violence, as nearly to overturn one of the assistants, who in vain attempted to prevent its extension. …

Exp. 3. The supra-orbital nerve was laid bare in the forehead, as it issues through the supra-ciliary foramen, in the eyebrow: the one conducting rod being applied to it, and the other to the heel, most extraordinary grimaces were exhibited every time that the electric discharges were made, by running the wire in my hand along the edges of the last trough, from the 220th to the 227th pair of plates; thus fifty shocks, each greater than the preceding one, were given in two seconds: every muscle in his countenance was simultaneously thrown into fearful action; rage, horror, despair, anguish, and ghastly smiles, united in their hideous expression in the murderer’s face, surpassing far the wildest representations of a Fuseli or a Kean. At this period several of the spectators were forced to leave the apartment from terror or sickness, and one gentleman fainted. …1

These experiments of Ure (or perhaps those of his predecessors) are mentioned by the unfailingly interesting Rav Eliyahu Kalatzkin:

וזה איזה שנים אשר אנשי החברה מגיני בעלי חיים (טהיערשוטץ פעראיין) [Humane Societies] החלו לחקור ולדון על דבר שאלת השחיטה, ובאיזה מחוזות במדינות שווייץ, מצאו האנטיסעמיטין תואנה להוציא חוק לאסור השחיטה, ולהנהיג הטביחה על ידי הבוטעראל, שיסמאסקע או מכונה עלעקטרית, ובעוד אשר ילכו לצוד ציד ויגרו כלבי הציד בטרפם, לעונג ושעשוע נפשם, יהפכו לרגע כרחמנים, ותחת מסוה החמלה והרחמים, יתנפלו להציק רבבות אנשים, ולהכרית אוכל מפי אחינו בני ישראל, ולא ישימו לב למופתי החכמה אשר הראו לדעת גדולי הפראפעסארין כי השחיטה נעלה וטובה מכל אופני הטביחה ומיתה האחרים, ובא קבוצת דבריהם במחברת הד”ר עהרמאן מטריער, אשר נקראה בשם טהיערשוטץ אונד מענשען-טרוטץ והובא דבריו במכה”ע יידישע פרעססע 18 אפריל שנה תרמ”ה, …

וכבר העיר בצדק החכם מהרי”ם ראבינאוויץ בחוברת “יסודי השחיטה”, שאין הפרכוס ותנועות של הבהמה אחר שחיטתה, מוכיחין שתרגיש אז צער וכאב, כאשר גם אחר כריתת כל הראש במכונת הגוילאטינע [guillotine], נראה בה לפעמים קריצת העינים וכדומה עכ”ד, והחוקרים בחנו בהגישם גוף אדם תלוי לצירי עמוד הגאלוואני, וראו שפרפר בתנועות מוזרות2

But while Ure understood his experiments to demonstrate that electricity could actually restore life to the dead, R. Kalatzkin rejects this interpretation:

In deliberating on the above galvanic phenomena, we are almost willing to imagine, that if, without cutting into and wounding the spinal marrow and blood-vessels in the neck, the pulmonary organs had been set a-playing at first, (as I proposed) by electrifying the phrenic nerve (which may be done without any dangerous incision,) there is a probability that life might have been restored. This event, however little desirable with a murderer, and perhaps contrary to law, would yet have been pardonable in one instance, as it would have been highly honourable and useful to science. …

It is known, that cases of death-like lethargy, or suspended animation, from disease and accidents have occurred, where life has returned, after longer interruption of its functions, than in the subject of the preceding experiments. It is probable, when apparent death supervenes from suffocation with noxious gases, &c, and when there is no organic lesion, that a judiciously directed galvanic experiment, will, if any thing will, restore the activity of the vital functions. …3

ואשר יש שישפטו מזה כי כח העלעקטרי יפעול על הנפש, לא כן הוא, ואך כאשר נשאר עוד בגופו כח חיים בלתי מורגש שב לתנועה מורגשת בכח גירוי הזרם העלעקטרי, וכאשר נראה כי הזרם העלעקטרי לא יפעול מאומה על הגוף אשר כבר אבד ממנו כל כח חיים, ופעמים נשאר בו כח חיוני, גם כשלא נראה בו אות ורגש חיים, וכמפורש בנדה (דף ס”ט) דזב וזבה שמתו מטמאין במשא עד שימוק הבשר, דאז הוא דהוי מת בודאי, ובפ”ת דמסכת שמחות שפוקדין על המתים עד ג’ ימים ומעשה שפקדו אחד וחיה כ”ה שנים, ועיין מ”ש בזה החת”ם סופר (חלק יו”ד תשובה של”ח), וכן יאמרו הרופאים שביחוד בתליה וחניקה, יארע כזאת, ולזאת פעל עליו הזרם העלעקטרי כמבואר

R. Kalatzkin’s cited remarks occur at the end of his long discussion of צער בעלי חיים, which we have previously discussed here and here. His essay was also the subject of a recent Reading Responsa lecture of mine, available at the Internet Archive.

  1. The Journal of Science and the Arts, Edited at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, Vol. VI, London 1819, pp. 283-290. See Lauren Young, The Real Electric Frankenstein Experiments of the 1800s, and John Simkin, Andrew Ure. []
  2. אמרי שפר סימן ל”ד אות י”ז []
  3. Ibid. pp. 292-93. []