[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.
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.
“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.
The 5 Towns Jewish Timesreported a question recently posed to Rav Chaim Kanievsky regarding whether Jews in Miami should obey evacuation orders ahead of Hurricane Irma, followed by his characteristically terse and rather oracular answer:
BREAKING VIDEO: Hagaon HaRav Chaim Kanievsky Tells Miami Residents To Leave Their Homes! ‘Sakanah!’
Hurricane Irma’s size and strength put the entire state of Florida on notice Tuesday, and residents and visitors prepared to leave in anticipation of catastrophic winds and floods that could reach the state by this weekend.
Throughout South Florida, officials readied evacuation orders and people raided store shelves, buying up water and other hurricane supplies. Long lines formed at gas stations and people pulled shutters out of storage and put up plywood to protect their homes and businesses.
Meanwhile, on Rechov Rashbam in Bnei Brak a question was posed as what residents of Miami should do. Should the residents stay or they should leave? Rav Chaim was explained about the recent storm in Texas, and the high number of deaths.
“There may be evacuation orders in Miami over Shabbos. Should they listen and leave, or should they stay?” – he was asked.
Rav Chaim responded with one word – “Sakanah!”
Watch the video below to see for yourself.
One might think that with such a brief (less than one minute) encounter, of which a video record is available, there would be little debate about what, exactly, was asked and answered, but one would be wrong. While the 5TJT describes R. Chaim’s response as “one word – “Sakanah!””, Matzav describes his answer as consisting of two words – “Chshash Sakana”:
“SAKANA”: R’ Chaim Kanievsky Asked About Evacuating Miami For Hurricane Irma (VIDEO)
Florida is hunkering down in preparation for Hurricane Irma, a record breaking Category 5 storm expected to make landfall in the next few days. Grocery shelves have been emptied, windows are being shuttered and emergency services are readying themselves for all possible scenarios.
In the Jewish community, another form of preparation is being taken into account. After Gov. Abbott of Texas was criticized for not calling for an evacuation before Hurricane Harvey, Florida’s Governor Rick Scott has warned that an evacuation order may be declared for parts of Florida in the next few days.
The question arose about how to deal with an order to flee that is issued on Shabbos.
The shayla made its way across the Atlantic Ocean, landing in Bnei Brak to be answered by the Godol Hador, R’ Chaim Kanievsky shlit”a. After listening to the halachic query, R’ Chaim was unequivocal. “Chshash Sakana,” he declared, with all its halachic ramifications.
Watch the video below to see the question being posed to R’ Chaim followed by his succinct answer:
Jews may travel on Shabbat to escape Hurricane Irma, haredi rabbi says
An influential Ashkenazi rabbi in Israel said Jews may travel on Shabbat to escape Hurricane Irma, a Category 4 storm that is expected to hit Florida over the weekend.
But some Jews in flood-prone areas are determined to ride out the storm, another rabbi said.
Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, who receives thousands of followers annually at his home in Bnei Brak from haredi Orthodox communities around the world, issued the call in an interview with a follower. One of his aides filmed and posted his response online Wednesday.
Kanievsky’s ruling came as people in parts of three Florida counties faced mandatory evacuation orders Thursday and officials in two other counties issued voluntary orders to leave in advance of Irma.
The storm could create one of the largest mass exoduses in U.S. history as additional evacuations are announced. Orthodox Jewish law permits the violation of Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, only in life-threatening or otherwise severe emergencies. …
[See the debate in the comments to the Matzav article over whether R. Chaim actually endorsed evacuation on Shabbas.]
Rav Chaim Kanievsky is 89 years old. He has spent virtually his whole life insulated from the outside world. He is a selfless person who has dedicated his entire life to the study of Torah (apart from a very brief period during the War of Independence when he served on guard duty). Many people, following the contemporary charedi notion of Daas Torah (in which the less a person knows about the world, the purer is his wisdom), believe that this makes him uniquely suited to give guidance.
But it goes even further. People consider even a word of blessing from him to be guidance. …
Last week there was another example of this, and it’s on video for everyone to see. Someone went to Rav Chaim and told him that there is a deadly storm headed for Miami, of a kind that has killed many people. They asked: Should people flee? And he replied: Sakanah! (“There’s a danger!”). And that was the end of the conversation.
This brief interaction is viewed very differently by different people. Some people genuinely see it as a demonstration of Divine Daas Torah. “Rav Chaim Kanievsky has ordered people to evacuate Miami!” Others see it as a tragic example of nothingness. He was told that there is a life-threatening danger, so he said that it’s dangerous. You can get the same answer from a five-year-old. …
But whatever one may think of the value of this particular interaction, it should be noted that there is strong precedent for consulting דעת תורה about the religious legitimacy of fleeing from natural disasters – see our previous citation of two classic responsa by prominent fifteenth century Rabbinic leaders – Maharil and Rashbash – in response to queries about the propriety of fleeing from outbreaks of plague.
As noted there, both responsa adduce the following bizarre aggadic passage as proof that “sometimes the messenger errs” – in other words, the argument for passiveness and submission to the Divine will fails since not everything that occurs is actually in accordance with the Divine plan; some tragedies are basically just unfortunate bureaucratic errors!
רב יוסף כי מטי להאי קרא בכי (משלי יג) ויש נספה בלא משפט אמר מי איכא דאזיל בלא זמניה אין כי הא דרב ביבי בר אביי הוה שכיח גביה מלאך המות אמר ליה לשלוחיה זיל אייתי לי מרים מגדלא שיער נשייא אזל אייתי ליה מרים מגדלא דרדקי אמר ליה אנא מרים מגדלא שיער נשייא אמרי לך אמר ליה אי הכי אהדרה אמר ליה הואיל ואייתיתה ליהוי למניינא אלא היכי יכלת לה הות נקיטא מתארא בידה והות קא שגרא ומחריא תנורא שקלתא ואנחתא אגבה דכרעה קדחא ואיתרע מזלה ואייתיתה א”ל רב ביבי בר אביי אית לכו רשותא למיעבד הכי אמר ליה ולא כתיב ויש נספה בלא משפט א”ל והכתיב (קוהלת א) דור הולך ודור בא אמר דרעינא להו אנא עד דמלו להו לדרא והדר משלימנא ליה לדומה א”ל סוף סוף שניה מאי עבדת אמר אי איכא צורבא מרבנן דמעביר במיליה מוסיפנא להו ליה והויא חלופיה1
When Rav Yosef reached this verse, he cried: “But there are those swept away without justice” (Proverbs 13:23). He said: Is there one who goes before his time and dies for no reason? The Gemara answers: Yes, like this incident of Rav Beivai bar Abaye, who would be frequented by the company of the Angel of Death and would see how people died at the hands of this angel. The Angel of Death said to his agent: Go and bring me, i.e., kill, Miriam the raiser, i.e., braider, of women’s hair. He went, but instead brought him Miriam, the raiser of babies.
The Angel of Death said to him: I told you to bring Miriam, the raiser of women’s hair. His agent said to him: If so, return her to life. He said to him: Since you have already brought her, let her be counted toward the number of deceased people. Apparently, this woman died unintentionally.
Rav Beivai asked the agent: But as her time to die had not yet arrived, how were you able to kill her? The agent responded that he had the opportunity, as she was holding a shovel in her hand and with it she was lighting and sweeping the oven. She took the fire and set it on her foot; she was scalded and her luck suffered, which gave me the opportunity, and I brought her.
Rav Beivai bar Abaye said to the Angel of Death: Do you have the right to act in this manner, to take someone before his time? The Angel of Death said to him: And is it not written: “But there are those swept away without justice” (Proverbs 13:23)? Rav Beivai said to him: And isn’t it written: “One generation passes away, and another generation comes” (Ecclesiastes 1:4), which indicates that there is a predetermined amount of time for the life of every generation.
He said to him: I shepherd them, not releasing them until the years of the generation are completed, and then I pass them on to the angel Duma who oversees the souls of the dead. Rav Beivai said to him: Ultimately, what do you do with his extra years, those taken away from this individual? The Angel of Death said to him: If there is a Torah scholar who disregards his personal matters, i.e., who overlooks the insults of those who wrong him, I add those years to him and he becomes the deceased’s replacement for that time.2
This possibility of erring messengers is invoked by halachic authorities in another context. As discussed below, there is considerable debate over the theological correctness of the liturgical phrase “לוקח נפשות במשפט”, and various aharonim grapple with the implication of the above aggadah that not all deaths are necessarily just:
חדושי אנשי שם
ק”ל דהא כתיב יש נספה בלא משפט וכעובדא דרב ביבי בפרק קמא דחגיגה ואנו אומרים אותו על המדה התמידית ומדאורייתא שהוא לוקח נפשות במשפט ואם לפעמים על המעט יש נספה בלא משפט אין ראוי מפני זה להמנע מלאומרו כי המקרה אינו תמידי ולא מדאורייתא:3
ואיכא למידק דאמאי לא קאמר דטעמא הוי משום דאמרינן בפ”ק דחגיגה יש נספה בלא משפט וכו’ יעו”ש ולהכי לא מצינן למימר לוקח נפשות במשפט ואמאי אייתי מההיא דמסכת שבת דאינה מימרא מוסכמת וי”ל דמהתם אין ראיה כלל דמלאך המות הוא דעבד הכי ולאו שהקב”ה אמר לו להמיתו כמעשה הנזכר שם משא”כ ההיא דשבת משמע שהקב”ה מרשהו להמיתו הגם דאין בו חטא ואיך מצינן למימר לוקח נפשות במשפט והר”ר יונה והרא”ש ז”ל כתבו שאין למוחקו יעו”ש. ומרן ז”ל בשו”ע או”ח סי’ קפ”ט ויו”ד סי’ שע”ט נראה שלא הכריע לא כהרי”ף והרמב”ם ולא כהר”י והרא”ש אמנם רמ”א ז”ל התם סי’ שע”ט כתבו אמנם כתב ג”כ כי כל דרכיו משפט והוא טעם נכון ודוק. שוב ראיתי להרב פר”ח ז”ל שהביא ראיה מההיא דפ”ק דחגיגה ולענ”ד אין ראיה כמ”ש.4
משרת משה (עטייה)
ולענ”ד יש להביא עוד סעד לסברת בה”ג ודעמיה מדאמר בפ”ק דחגיגה בדף ד’ ע”ב ויש נספה בלא משפט ואייתו עובדא דמרים מגדלא שער נשייא וכו’ ופירש”י ז”ל דיש כלה ואין עון בידו ולא היה משפט לספות עיי”ש וא”כ אפוא כיון דאשכחן מקרא מלא דיבר הכתוב דיש נספה בלא משפט וזימנין שכיח דאזיל בלא זימניה ובלי עון ונקנה בחליפין א”כ היאך נאמר לוקח נפשות במשפט.
ואגב הוקשה לי בסוגייא דשבת דאמאי לא פריך על ר’ אמי דאמר אין מיתה בלא חטא מהאי קרא דיש נספה בלא משפט והאי עובדא דמרים שהיתה מזמן בית שני ומשו”ה סיפר לו לר’ ביבי מה שאירע כבר כמ”ש התוס’ בד”ה הוה שכיח גבי מלאך המות וכו’ עיי”ש והש”ס בהסכמה עלו ופירשו להאי קרא כי האי עובדא ואמרו אין כי הא דר’ ביבי וכו’ וא”כ במה כוחו דר’ אמי לומר אין מיתה בלא חטא. ואין לומר דס”ל לר’ אמי בפי’ האי קרא כמ”ש רש”י ז”ל בפי’ משלי בסי’ י”ד עיי”ש חדא דמה לנו בפי’ רש”י כיון דהש”ס פי’ איפכא ורש”י בתחילה פי’ הפשט ואח”כ איהו גופיה סיים דרבותינו פירשו במס’ חגיגה וכו’ עיי”ש. ובמ”ש אנן בעניותין בקונטרס זכות אבות בפ”ב משנה ח’ בס”ד. ועוד דאף את”ל דפליג עלה ומפרש האי קרא בגוונא אחריתי מה יתרץ בהאי עובדא דסוף סוף אשכחן דיש נספה בלא חטא ולא מטא זימניה וגם דאם איתא הו”ל למסדר הש”ס להודיענו האי פלוגתא בפי’ האי קרא ולימא דלפום שיטה זו אזלא לה לעלמא האי בכיה דר’ יוסף דהוה בכי כי מטי להאי קרא על דאיכא אינש דאזיל בלא זימניה אלא לאו דמוכח דהש”ס תפס במושלם בפי’ האי קרא הכי ורב יוסף מדקא בכי משמע שהבין הקרא הכי ואייתו עלה בש”ס לומר היכי דמי ור’ ביבי ג”כ כד בעי מיניה דמלאך המות אית לכו רשותא למיעבד הכי השיבו ולא כתיב ויש נספה בלא משפט וגם מן השמים יוכיחו מדשתקו ולא א”ל ולא מידי משמע דהסכימו להאי עובדא דמלאך המות והפסוק עצמו העיד דיכול להיות כהאי גונא והוא מוסכם והדרא עלן דאמאי לא פריך אליבא דר’ אמי מהאי מילתא ולכאורה צריך יישוב. …5
My weekly column for this past פרשת האזינו:
Parashas Haazinu (32:4) contains the declaration: “The Rock! – perfect is His work, for all His paths are justice; a G-d of faith without iniquity, righteous and fair is He.”
This conviction of the universality of Hashem’s justice is expressed in (some versions of) the language added to the Blessing after Meals (birkas ha’mazon) in the home of a mourner. Our text of the Talmud (Berachos 46b) includes the phrases “[He] takes souls with justice … for all His paths are justice”. There is a Geonic-Sephardic tradition, however, that deletes these references to justice, since the Talmud elsewhere (Shabbas 55a-b) records a debate over the proposition that “there is no death without error [cheit] and there is no suffering without iniquity [avon]” and apparently concludes by endorsing the opposing view that “there is death without error and there is suffering without iniquity” (Halachos Gedolos cited by Tosafos Berachos ibid.; Rif and Rambam as understood by Beis Yosef OC end of siman 189; Beis Yosef himself). The Ashkenazic tradition, on the other hand, defends our text, arguing that despite the Talmudic conclusion that “there is death without error”, it nevertheless remains the case that “all His paths are justice”, “and He knows why He does so” (Rabbeinu Yonah to Berachos ibid.; Tosafos ibid.; Rema YD 379:1). Furthermore, the Meiri insists that despite the apparent conclusion of the Talmudic discussion, the theologically normative view is nevertheless that “there is no death without error and there is no suffering without iniquity” (and cf. Abudraham, Hilchos Berachos, Shaar 9).
An additional objection to the phrase “[He] takes souls with justice” is based on the text of Proverbs (13:23) “and some are consumed without justice”. The Talmud (Chagigah 4b-5a) understands this to mean that lives are sometimes ended unjustly. In support of this theologically provocative stance, the Talmud cites a remarkable anecdote of the underling of the Angel of Death confusing his master’s description of his target and taking the life of the wrong woman by mistake (cf. Mishras Moshe and Michtam Le’David to Rambam Hilchos Berachos 2:8)! Some explain that justice is the norm, and its absence a rare aberration, and we may therefore declare that “[He] takes souls with justice” since this is generally the case (Chidushei Anshei Shem, Berachos ibid.).
My weekly lectures (available at the Internet Archive) and column for this past פרשת במדבר discussed the legitimacy of the use of non-Jewish names by Jews:
In parashas Bemidbar (1:2), Hashem commands Moshe to count the Jews “with the number of their names”. The Sforno explains that this census (as opposed to the one at the end of chumash Bemidbar) included their names, since everyone from that generation had names that alluded to their personal nature, a distinction that the subsequent generation did not possess.
Elsewhere (Bereishis 29:35), the Sforno opines that the names that Yaakov Avinu’s wives chose for their children were not invented by them, but were preexisting names that they chose due to their linguistic applicability to their personal circumstances.
According to the Sforno, then, Biblical names were not necessarily natively Jewish. The Talmud itself contains a similar opinion about the name Esther. According to one view, Esther’s true name was Hadassah, while Esther was the name that the “nations of the world” called her, alluding to “Istahar” (Megilah 13a), meaning either the moon (Rashi), or the planet Venus (Yaavetz, Targum Sheni Megilah 2:7).
This etymology of the name Esther as being of non-Jewish origin has an important ramification for the law of gittin (bills of divorce). A fundamental dichotomy in these laws exists between “Jewish” and “non-Jewish” names, with different rules applying to how they are written in a get, and the question arises as to how to categorize a name like “Alexander”: on the one hand, it is certainly of Greek, and not Jewish, origin, but on the other hand, it was already a common Jewish name in the Talmudic era. One of the classic works on the laws governing the writing of names in gittin, the Get Mesudar (Mavo Shearim, Pesher Davar #2), rules in favor of the view that “Alexander” is treated as a Jewish name, for “even the name Esther did not sprout from holy ground, for it is from the Persian language … but it is nevertheless considered a Hebrew name since it had become common among Jews back when they still spoke the Holy Tongue, and it is also written in the Holy Scriptures, and so too Alexander and similar [names]”.
שאלה אלו האנוסים שבאים מפורטוגל והיו להם שמות כשמות הגוים ואחר שבאו לבקש את ד’ ואת תורתו משנים שמם לשמות בני ישראל ויש להם צורך לכתוב ממקום אשר הם יושבים ביהדותם אל המקום אשר היה להם שמות כשמות הגוים אם לקרוביהם ואם למי שנושא ונתון ממונם אם יכולים לכתוב ולשנות שמם כשמות אשר היו להם בגיותם או אם יש חשש איסור בדבר מפני שנראה מקיים היותו עדין גוי ובלתי מודה בתורת ד’
תשובה אמת כי מדת חסידות לא קאמינא דודאי מדת חסידות הוא להרחיק האדם עצמו בכל מיני הרחקות שאיפשר ובפרט למי שעברו על ראשו המים הזדונים אכן מן הדין נראה בעיני דבר ברור שאין בזה חשש איסור כלל
[ועיין שם שהאריך להוכיח להתיר, ובתוך דבריו כתב:] שמות הגוים אינם אסורים ליהודים וראיה לדבר דאמרינן בגיטין פ’ א’ [פרק א’] … ולא תימא דוקא שמות הרגילים ישראל וגוים יחד אבל שמות מובהקים לגוים לא שהרי מתוך דברי הרא”ש משמע בפירוש שהיו ישראלים נקראים כשמות מובהקים של גוים …1
[I am always struck by Rashdam’s use of the idiom “שעברו על ראשו המים הזדונים” to refer to baptism …]
And while we’re on the topic of the names of Yaakov’s children, I’ll take the opportunity to cite Hizkuni’s utterly charming interpretation2 of Leah’s declaration, upon the birth of her third child, that “הַפַּעַם יִלָּוֶה אִישִׁי אֵלַי כִּי יָלַדְתִּי לוֹ שְׁלֹשָׁה בָנִים”: a woman can manage two children with her two hands, but requires her husband’s help once her offspring number three!
עד עכשיו הייתי מנהלת שני בני בשתי ידי ועכשיו שנולד לו בן שלישי יצטרך אישי לסייע לי לנהלם:3