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.

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.]

Any Sufficiently Advanced Technology Is Indistinguishable From Magic

My colleagues and I periodically engage in the perennial debate over whether modern information technology is a boon for, or bane of, genuine Torah scholarship.

On one recent occasion, when my friend M.S. and I leaped to our laptops to hunt down some piece of information relevant to a question that had arisen, our friend Y.S. looked at us reproachfully and averred: “R. Akiva Eger did not utilize a Google search bar …”.

Actually, I responded, while I could not comment regarding R. Akiva Eger, there is at least one prominent אחרון whose renowned prodigious erudition was indeed the product (at least to some extent) of a pre-technological, mystical version of a “Google search bar”, according to a tradition recorded by חיד”א:

ושמעתי מרב אחד שהרב ש”ך היה יודע שם המציאה דהיינו שם קדוש לכוין בו ולמצוא הבקיאות שרוצה תיכף ומיד1

  1. שם הגדולים, מערכת ספרים אות ש’ #135. [To be honest, I did not remember the exact quote, and I had to look it up on my laptop – but only because I did not have a physical copy of the שם הגדולים accessible.] []