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.


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.

Theft and Thaumaturgy II

The previous post in this series discussed the idea that Rachel stole Lavan’s תרפים in order to prevent them from informing Lavan of her family’s flight; this post discusses the other main traditional explanation of her theft, that the תרפים were idols worshipped by Lavan, and Rachel stole them to wean him from idolatry.

בראשית רבה

והיא לא נתכוונה אלא לשם שמים. אמרה: מה אנא מיזיל לי, ונשבוק הדין סבא בקלקוליה?! לפיכך הוצרך הכתוב לומר: ותגנוב רחל את התרפים אשר לאביה:1


להפריש את אביה מעבודה זרה נתכוונה:2

The simple version of this approach is that Rachel’s goal was practical: by removing the objects of Lavan’s worship from his possession, his ability to worship them would be thus thwarted. Abarbanel seems to have so understood Hazal, and he rejects their interpretation of Rachel’s motive (in favor of basically that of the previous post), essentially accusing them of naïveté: he considers it preposterous that a daughter might alter her elderly father’s religious convictions, and insists that Rachel would have been quite foolish to have had such a hope:

איך נתפתה רחל לגנוב את התרפים אשר לאביה האם חשבה להרחיקו מעכו”ם כדבריהם ז”ל באמת סכלות גדולה יהיה זה לה בחשבה כי לעת זקנתו בתו תטה את לבו ועם היות שנגנבו ממנו התרפים יעשה לו אלהים אחרים תחתיהם3

It is perhaps to counter this objection (as Dr. Alexander Klein suggests) that R. Hananel explains that Rachel’s action was not a pragmatic attempt to prevent her father from worshipping his idols, but rather a theological demonstration of their worthlessness: she meant to lead her father to the realization that “there can be no substance to a god who is stolen”:

ורבינו חננאל כתב כי מה שגנבה אותם כדי שיחזור בו ושיאמר אלוה הגנוב אין בו ממש, כדבר יואש שאמר (שופטים ו’) אם אלהים הוא ירב לו כי נתץ מזבחו, וכמו שאמר הכתוב (יחזקאל כ”ח) האמור תאמר אלהים אני לפני הורגך ואתה אדם ולא א-ל ביד מחללך:4

Vandalizing Televisions

In any event, Rachel’s act may serve as precedent to justify the theft or destruction of property in order to prevent the commission of sin, and it is indeed invoked as such by R. Moshe Shternbuch, in the course of his consideration of the case of a baal teshuvah who continually (!) vandalizes the television at his parents’ home in order to prevent the family from watching it. R. Shternbuch begins by conceding that the prohibition of watching television is “very severe”, but is nevertheless unwilling to grant unequivocal permission to vandalize the television, noting that such vigilantism is often counterproductive. He points out that Rachel did not include Jacob in her scheme, and he ultimately objected to what she had done, with his imprecation against the perpetrator ultimately causing Rachel’s death!

שאלה: בעל תשובה הנמצא בבית אביו ויש שם טלויזיא ונוהג הבן להזיק את המכשיר לעתים תכופות כדי שלא יסתכלו בו בני המשפחה, ושואל אם מותר לו להזיק כן.

הנה האיסור להסתכל בטלויזיא הוא חמור מאד, ומאביזרייהו דעריות הוא …

אמנם נחלקו הקצות החושן והנתיבות המשפט (חו”מ סימן ג’) אם הדין כפייה לקיים המצוות מסור לבית דין דוקא או לכל אחד ואחד, … ונראה שצדקו אלו הפוסקים שהצריכו בית דין דוקא לכפייה … ואף אם מעיקר הדין מוטל על כל אחד ואחד, נראה שאין להפקיר ממון ישראל בחנם, וצריכים התייעצות ופסק מבית דין, דלפעמים בדרך לקיחת ממונו גורם ריחוק יותר, ואין כל אחד ואחד יכול ליקח ממון חבירו בטענה שמתכוין לשם שמים להפרישו מאיסור. …

ובברכות דחסידי קדמאי … ומשמע שראוי לקרוע בגדי פריצות ולשלם במקום שיש חילול השם וכל שכן טלויזיא שמטמא עוד יותר, ורחל גנבה התרפים של אביה להפרישו מעבודה זרה וכמבואר ברש”י …

אמנם דעתי נוטה שכל פעולה צריך שאלת חכם, וגם רב אדא בר אהבה אמר “מתון מתון וכו’”, ואפילו רחל אמנו שגנבה התרפים מאביה להפרישו מעבודה זרה והעלימה מיעקב שהקפיד בדבר, ואמר “עם אשר תמצא את אלהיך לא יחיה” הרי שלא היתה דעתו מסכמת לזה, ולבסוף נענשה רחל על ידי זה שמתה, … ולפעמים לא הגיע עדיין הזמן להפרישו מטלויזיא, ופעולה שלא בזמנה עלולה לפעמים לקלקל, ולכל עת ולכל זמן, ובעצת חכמים ישכון אור ואין לזוז מדבריהם.5

[Translations / paraphrases of R. Shternbuch’s responsum: here and here.]

Spilling Out חלב עכו”ם

R. Avraham Weinfeld was asked about a yeshivah that persisted upon serving its students חלב עכו”ם, despite the pleas of local G-d fearing individuals, until one zealot spilled out one morning’s milk delivery, to protest the sinners and raise public awareness of the infraction. The yeshivah administration responded by suing for the loss. As R. Weinfeld summarizes, “the basic question is whether one who damages another’s property in order to prevent him from sinning is liable for compensation or not”:

שאלה, מעשה שהיה בעיר אחת בישיבה קטנה נתנו בכל יום להילדים לשתות חלב שחלבו עכו”ם, ויראי ד’ שבעיר בקשו מהנהלת הישיבה חדול מזה ולא הועילו בבקשתם ודחו אותם מיום אל יום עד שקם איש אחד וקנא קנאת ד’, ובבוקר אחד כאשר הביאו החלב עכו”ם אל הישיבה שפך את כל החלב ארצה, כדי למחות בעוברי עבירה ולעורר דעת הקהל אל האיסור, אך מנהלי הישיבה תבעו אותו לשלם ההפסד כדין מזיק, ונשאלתי אם יש ממש בטענתם, ותוכן השאלה אם המזיק ממון חבירו כדי לאפרושי מאיסורא חייב לשלם או לא.6

R. Weinfeld has a lengthy analysis of the question, inclining toward the zealous defendant, and concludes by noting that “with the aid of Heaven, the protest was effective, and they henceforth distributed חלב ישראל”:

ובעז”ה הועילה המחאה ומאז הנהיגו לחלק חלב ישראל ושלום על ישראל.

My parashah lecture and weekly halachah column for פרשת ויצא covered the topics and (most of the) sources of this and the previous post. Here is the column:

In parashas Vayeitzei, the Torah relates that Rachel stole her father Lavan’s “terafim” as she fled from him. What were these mysterious terafim, and what was Rachel’s motive and justification for stealing them? The midrashim and classic commentators offer two general approaches:

  1. The terafim were magical devices capable of speech, and Rachel stole them to prevent them from revealing to Lavan the flight of Yaakov and his household (Tanchuma #12, Chizkuni).
  2. The terafim were idols of Lavan, and Rachel stole them to cure him of idol worship (Bereishis Rabah 74:5, Rashi).

The latter approach seems to imply the legitimacy of theft as a means to prevent someone from sinning. R. Moshe Shternbuch does indeed adduce Rachel’s action in support of the permissibility of destroying property that is being used in the commission of sin, although he subsequently points out that Yaakov apparently disagreed with her decision, and that Rachel was eventually punished by death for her action (Shut. Teshuvos Vehanhagos 1:368).

In the course of his analysis, R. Shternbuch cites a dispute between the Ketzos Hachoshen and the Nesivos Hamishpat over whether the Talmudic rule approving the use of force to prevent someone from sinning (Bava Kama 28a) is limited to the courts, or endorses even vigilante action by private citizens. R. Shternbuch sides with the Ketzos that the authority to use force is the sole prerogative of the court, but he seems to overlook the fact that the Ketzos subsequently clarifies his position and concedes that even a private citizen may use force to prevent someone from actively violating a prohibition (such as eating non-kosher food), and it is only the use of force to compel someone to act in fulfillment of a positive commandment (such as taking the four species) that is limited to the court (see Ketzos, Nesivos and Meshoveiv Nesivos at the beginning of siman 3).

The lecture and accompanying handouts are available at the Internet Archive.

See also:

  1. בראשית רבה פרשה ע”ד סימן ה’ []
  2. רש”י בראשית לא:יט, ועיין גם מדרש תנחומא פרשת ויצא סימן י”ב []
  3. אברבנאל שם שאלה י”א []
  4. רבינו בחיי שם []
  5. שו”ת תשובות והנהגות חלק א’ סימן שס”ח []
  6. שו”ת לב אברהם סימן ע”ה []

Ascetics, Aesthetics, and Cosmetics

My halachah column for this past year’s פרשת נשא:

In Parashas Naso (6:11), a Nazarite is commanded to bring a sin-offering. As we have noted in previous years, the Talmud (Bava Kama 91b) cites an explanation that this is to atone for the sin of having (unnecessarily) deprived himself of the enjoyment of wine. Elsewhere (Nedarim 10a), the Talmud derives from this that one who engages in (discretionary) fasting is called a sinner.

But in yet another discussion of the topic, the Talmud (Taanis 11a-b) again begins by citing the opinion that the Nazarite and the faster are considered sinners, but then proceeds to cite two other opinions: one that considers them both ‘holy’, and one that invokes the term ‘pious’ (although Rashi and Tosafos actually disagree whether it is the faster, or the one who refrains from fasting, who is termed pious).

The Tosafos complicate matters even further, noting that the same sage (Shmuel) who maintains that the faster is considered a sinner, elsewhere maintains that fasting is permitted, and even a mitzvah! They explain that although fasting is inherently sinful, the mitzvah involved outweighs the sin. This is obviously difficult to understand.

R. An-Shlomo Astruc in his Midrashei Ha’Torah adopts a similar position, elaborating that the ‘sin’ requiring ‘atonement’ is not the Nazarite’s abstemiousness itself, but the underlying fact that his urges have become so powerful that he is compelled to become a Nazarite and renounce wine “which cheereth G-d and man” (Shoftim 9:13) in order to subdue his base nature and evil characteristics and eliminate his carnal lusts. He explains that just as some substances are good for the physically healthy but harmful to the ill, so, too, is wine good for the morally healthy but abstention therefrom a tonic for the morally deranged (cf. Gilyonot Nechama year 5710).

The Ramban in his commentary to our parashah sides with the view that Nazarism is praiseworthy. He explains that a Nazarite ideally ought to maintain his elevated status permanently – “he should remain all his days a Nazarite and holy to his G-d” – and that by declining to do so, he commits a grave sin, “and he requires atonement as he returns to becoming defiled by the lusts of the world”.

My parashah lecture, on the same topic, along with accompanying handout, is available at the Internet Archive. [See also our previous posts here and here about the permissibility of cosmetic surgery.]