… Mishkan/ Mt. Sinai/ Sefer Vayikra parallel structures
… why charging interest is prohibited
Important ideas to live by:
Realizing God’s ongoing influence in our lives
Treating one another as members of the same family
The recurring number seven links events in the calendar to the original seven, reminding us that it was God who created the universe and “rested” on day 7
Shemitah and Yovayl provide major societal, economic and religious benefits
Seven positive and seventeen negative commandments
Focus on the holiness of the land of Israel
Shemitah the Sabbatical Year (last year of seven-year cycle)
• Complete rest for the land
• Sowing fields, pruning vineyards, reaping after growth of previous year’s harvest and picking grapes prohibited
• Produce that grows on its own during the year is considered ownerless and available for anyone to eat
Yovayl (“Jubilee” year after seven Shemitah cycles)
• “And you shall proclaim freedom [release of debts and servants] throughout the land and unto all the inhabitants thereof”
• Shofar blasts on the tenth day of the seventh month (Yom Kippur) announce its arrival
• Each person’s hereditary land (allotted when his ancestors first entered the Land of Canaan) is returned to him, if it had been sold
• Hebrew slaves are freed
• Prohibition of sowing, reaping, and picking grapes
Redemption of hereditary land in Israel
Redemption of hereditary houses in walled cities in Israel
Helping another Jew by…
• Acting before he begins to fail
• Not letting him starve
• Not charging interest for lending money or foodstuffs
Social justice for fellow Jews [when the impoverishment of another Hebrew is mentioned, he is referred to as “thy brother”]
Idolatry is forbidden
Sabbath must be observed
The Mishkan and Mt. Sinai
This parsha opens with the statement “And God spoke to Moshe on (prefix of Hebrew letter “beis”) Mount Sinai saying”. [Note: it’s also possible that the prefix “beis” means “with”. Understood this way, God is communicating to us that He wants us to live our lives “with” (i.e., behaving in a way that is consistent with) the ethics and morals presented on Mt. Sinai.]
Torah scholars wonder about the connection between Mt. Sinai and Shemitah (the immediately following topic):
Rashi cites the Talmudic answer that the juxtaposition is meant to teach us that just like Shemitah was presented at Mt. Sinai, so, too, all the Mitzvas and their details were commanded at Mt. Sinai.
But both Rasham (Rashi’s grandson) and his contemporary Ibn Ezra, provide an alternate approach. They think that the reference to Mt. Sinai is to remind us that the Torah and all its laws were given before the construction of the Mishkan.
The Mishkan was a mobile Mt. Sinai designed to offer a concrete replica of the awesome moment when the Israelites became a nation and began their relationship with God as a people and not just as individuals. The Mishkan was laid out in a three-part division of space that mimicked the location of the Israelites at the revelation on Mt. Sinai.
Most of the nation stood at the foot of the mountain. Similarly, all Israelites were permitted in the large Mishkan courtyard.
The area higher up on the mountain, finds a parallel in the “Kodesh” section of the Mishkan, (which contained the Menorah, the Table and the copper altar) and into which only the priests could enter.
The top of the fiery mountain, where Moshe stood alone, finds its counterpart in the Holy of Holies (where the Holy Ark was domiciled). Only the High Priest could enter this sanctum sanctorum and only on Yom Kippur, carrying with him a pan of burning incense.
The Mishkan, Mt. Sinai and Sefer Vayikrah
Dame Mary Douglas, a renown British anthropologist, takes this analysis a step further and demonstrates that the entire Sefer Vayikrah is also laid out in the three-part pattern of the Mishkan and Mt. Sinai. This idea is presented and expanded upon in a recent paper in which the author Professor Gary Rendsburg explains that… “Douglas extended this parallel to the layout of the book of Leviticus. In her analysis, the entire book of Leviticus is laid out on the pattern of the Tabernacle, that is to say, in a tripartite division: (a) Outer Court (chapters 1-17)
(b) Holy Place (chapters 18-24)
(c) Holy of Holies (chapters. 25-27).”
The first and largest section of the text in Sefer Vayikrah (with the largest number of chapters and verses, as shown above) deals with matters relating to the (large)Tabernacle outer courtyard:
• Korbanot (sacrifices)
• Laws of purity (to determine who was permitted to enter)
• Laws about the slaughtering of animals
• Prohibition of ingesting blood
The second, smaller section of Vayikrah deals with the laws relating to the smaller “Kodesh” section of the Tabernacle including:
• Laws specific to the priests who alone could enter this area
• Laws pertaining to the Menorah
• Laws pertaining to the Table
The third, smallest section of the text, deals with blessings and curses arising from the nation’s either observing or disobeying the Torah as embodied in the Holy Ark, which contained the Ten Commandments. This area, the Holy of Holies, is also the smallest section of the Mishkan.
Sefer Vayikrah is primarily a book of laws, except for two reported incidents. One is about the strange fire that was brought into the Mishkan by Aharon’s sons Nadav and Avihu. The second is about a blasphemer. In Douglas’ view these two narratives are representative of the two screens or curtains that divide the Mishkan into three sections.
The first incident makes mention of how Aaron’s sons remained “at the entrance to the Ohel Moed (Tent of Meeting)” and that both Aharon and Moshe entered the Ohel Moed, then exited to bless the people. The focus of these verses is on the location where the first screen (“masach”) serves as a divider between the outer court and the Kodesh area.
Although the second incident makes no mention of separation, the verses immediately preceding make mention of the “paroches”, which is the curtain that separates the holy area (Kodesh) from the Holy of Holies (Kodesh Kadashim)!
The three-time references to Mt. Sinai in the opening verse of this Parsha and again after the curses and again at the end of the entire Sefer may represent an enveloping, closing reminder of the apex that was reached by Moshe in his summit with God on the mountain and its attainable replication by the Israelites through the Holy of Holies.
“Who Knows Seven?”
The Torah presents ideas and regulations designed to…
Rest the body
Nourish the soul
Regain lost freedom
Recover ancestral property
Replenish the soil
Prompt the realization that all one’s earthly possessions ultimately derive from God.
The number seven recurs often:
Shabbos occurs on the seventh day of the week
Shemitah is a seven-year cycle
Yovayl occurs the year after a period of seven Shemitah cycles.
Two of the Three Festivals last seven days
The third Festival, Shavuos, occurs after seven weeks of counting the Omer.
The High Holy Days take place in the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar
According to Nechama Leibowitz, the sevenfold counting of the Omer “symbolized the incomplete character of the liberation from Egypt and the looking forward to its final consummation in the receiving of the Torah”.
The word Shabbos and related root-words frequently recur in the text. All events lead us back to the seven days of Creation that culminate in Shabbos. The calendar of sacred days and seasons prompts thoughts about God; about His creation of, and ongoing involvement in, the universe; about our place in His universe; and about our experiencing gratitude for what we have and for what we do not have.
“But in the Seventh Year the Land Shall Have a Sabbath of Complete Rest, a Sabbath of the Lord.”
Shemitah literally means “loosening” or “easing” or “releasing”.
Just as God refrained from productive creativity on the seventh day of Creation and just as we humans are commanded to rest regularly on the seventh day of the week, so, too, the land needs to have its own Sabbath and lie fallow every seventh year. All agricultural activity is prohibited; fruits and vegetables that grow on their own are deemed ownerless (hefker); and available for all to eat.
During Shemitah all outstanding debts between Jewish debtors and creditors are cancelled. But during the first century BCE, Hillel the Elder realized that this created serious societal problems in that the lenders refused to lend (knowing that the loan would be cancelled in the seventh year). As a result, the destitute had no way of getting the funds they needed.
According to the Torah law only loans made between two private parties are cancelled. Because of this pressing need, Hillel instituted the “pruzbul”, a legal document that transfers the debt to the Beth Din (religious court). The wording of the “pruzbul” is “I give over to you [the Beth Din] all debts which I have, so that I may collect them any time I wish.”
Acknowledges that the land belongs to God
Provides the opportunity for the population to study Torah (Ibn Ezra)
Reinforces the idea that amassing assets should not be one’s only life goal since ultimately it is Divine involvement that determines success (Isaac Arama)
Places limitation on one’s eating (due to food scarcity) which, in modern times, leads to simpler, healthier lives
Eliminates class differences in that all vegetation that grows is available to all equally
Facilitates soil restoration by requiring that fields remain uncultivated
“A Yovayl Shall That Fiftieth Year be to you”
Yovayl means a ram or ram’s horn. Loud blasts from the ram’s horn were sounded throughout the land on Yom Kippur to announce the start of the Yovayl year. The translation “Jubilee Year” (from the Latin root for “wild shout”) has no connection with Yovayl but, according to Rabbi Gunther Plaut, “may reflect the modern use of jubilation to designate a festive celebration, especially an important anniversary”.
Martin Buber thinks that just like the ram is the leader of flocks, Yovayl is the year that…
• “Leads the return
• Leads home
• Brings home
• Restores impoverished owners of land to their original land
• Returns people fallen into bondage to their families
…the horn of Yovayl calls and fetches us home.”
Yovayl rules include:
• Liberation of slaves
• Prohibition of farm work (as in the Shemitah year)
• Lands returning to the original owner
• Voiding of current owner’s right to the land even after he has worked it for many years
• Admonishment of both parties to abide by principles of justice and honesty [“Al tonu ish es achiv”—you should not wrong one another:
o No insulting
o No provoking
o No taking advantage of the weakness of the other party
o Avoiding tactless remarks calculated to hurt the other person’s feelings
Sefer Hachinuch thinks that Yovayl was designed to curb Man’s acquisitive instincts and remind him that the earth belongs to God. Counting of the years would prevent someone from coveting and possibly stealing land belonging to others, because ultimately it would be returned to the original owner.
The nineteenth century social and economic reformer Henry George observed that in agrarian societies, the concentration of land in the hands of a few led to the downfall of those ancient societies. Owning land equals wealth. Yovayl assures the even distribution of wealth by insisting in the re-division of the land in accordance with the original allocation, thereby making monopoly impossible. Purchase of land is more correctly to be thought of as a long-term lease rather than an outright buy. The price is determined by the number and value of the crops remaining until Yovayl arrives. The legislation prevents the development of a landless class and the concentration of property and power in the hands of a select few.
The mystical Rav Kook sees in Yovayl “a remedy for the distortions of the past, restoring national life to its original conception and its pristine freshness…the nation is visited with a spirit of forgiveness and repentance in remedying all the injustices of the past…as soon as Yom Kippur arrived the Bet Din sounded the shofar, the slaves left their households and fields returned to their owners”. Rav Kook perceives…
A restoration of individual self-respect and freedom
A nurturing of the nation’s soul
An elimination of inequalities, distortions and faults which facilitates
A freeing of the divine soul dwelling in the nation, allowing it to shine with all its spiritual glory
Bible Professor Yairah Amit of Tel-Aviv University views Yovayl “as a social law that…
Opens new options for a better life to every member of Israelite society in economic straits
Limits the competitive race for achievement to 50 years
Demonstrates an attempt to struggle against the continuous domination and exploitation of one part of society by another
Ensures each member of Israelite society a new cycle of opportunities
Is an astonishing idea conceived to forestall the possibility that any Israelite would find himself forever without property and forever dependent
Attempts by means of ideological legislation to direct and educate society, to impose divine justice, and thus to ensure the right of all its members to live honorably, with a guaranteed minimum of economic means”
In summary, Yovayl has major societal, economic and religious benefits including …
o Preventing the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a few
o Countering our natural acquisitive inclination
o Reminding us again of our dependence on God, the ultimate “owner” of the universe
o Realizing that no human being is chattel to be indentured forever
o Stressing the importance of a united family
The trio of seven—Shabbos, Shemita and Yovayl—works together to invest the nation with a spirit of forgiveness and a remedying of past injustices.
According to the Talmud, Yovayl was celebrated so long as the entire land of Israel was inhabited by Israelites. It ceased to be observed with the disappearance of the Ten Tribes.
The Nation of Israel: A Single Extended Family
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks comments on the recurrent use of “brother” in description of social legislation:
• “…let no one wrong his brother
• …redeem what his brother sold
• …if your brother is impoverished, redeem what his brother sold
• …let your brother live with you”
The word “brother” sometimes means a relative but mostly means a fellow Jew. As a Jew, we are each a member of an extended family-- being children of Avraham and Sarah; sharing the same history; reliving the same memories on holidays and often suffering together at the hands of our enemies.
Rambam elaborates: “If a brother will not show mercy to a brother, who will show mercy to them? To whom do the poor of Israel lift up their eyes? To the gentiles who hate them and pursue them? Their eyes are turned to their brethren alone”.
Rabbi Sacks concludes that the family is the most powerful vehicle for continuity in that it provides education and tradition to its offspring. Family feeling is also the most primal and powerful moral bond. “Wherever families are strong, a sense of altruism exists that can be extended outward from family to friends to neighbors to community and from there to the nation as a whole… The Jewish people remains a family, often divided, always argumentative, but bound in a common bond of fate nonetheless.” Our parsha reminds us of our obligation to help our fallen brethren rise again.
On the Treatment of a Slave [“Eved”]
Slavery as it existed in the ancient and modern world (and still exists today) was (and remains) cruel and inhumane. The slave could be punished or killed at the master’s will:
• In ancient Greece, the slave had no more rights than the beast
• Athens maintained a thriving slave market
• Aristotle believed that the practice of any manual job should disqualify the practitioner from citizenship
• All non-Greeks slaves by birth were fit for nothing but obedience
• In ancient Rome slaves were the lowest class of society, having no rights and no legal status or individuality. They could not create relations or families, nor could they own property. They were considered the property of the owner. The slave could be mutilated and crucified at the master’s whim.
The Torah’s attitude towards the institution of slavery is both progressive and enlightened. Nechama Leibowitz cites the German-Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen (1842-1918) who observed that the Torah has no unique word to describe a servant and master. Eved can refer to anyone who…
Has sold himself
Has been sold
Is God-fearing (“eved Hashem”)
A Hebrew slave always remains a human, never chattel. His treatment is highly regulated. He…
• Is bought in a private transaction, not in a public slave market
• Is treated with dignity
• Eats the same food as his master
• Cannot be given needless work or work with no time limit
• Is automatically freed after six years or during Yovayl, whichever comes first
The treatment of an eved is so demanding that the Talmud concluded that “Whoever buys a Hebrew slave buys a master over himself”.
“Do not exact from him [fellow Israelite] advance interest...do not lend him money at advance interest or give him your food at advance interest”
The biblical prohibition against charging interest is the only such restriction known to us from the Ancient Near East
Both charging and receiving interest are prohibited. One of the Hebrew words used to characterize interest is “neshech”, which derives from the root meaning “to bite”. Demanding payment of interest in advance takes a substantial “bite” out of the sum being loaned. The other word is “tarbit” [which later evolved into the word ribbit, “increase”] which refers to the interest received by the creditor.
In the agrarian society of the Torah lending money to a fellow Israelite farmer [who was considered family] was an act of philanthropy—and not a business proposition—that provided the farmer with the necessary working capital to purchase supplies. The loan would be repaid after the crop is sold. The location of this prohibition near the laws of Yovayl and Shemitah suggests that the purpose of the law was to drive home again the idea that that property is not ours unconditionally and that we have a responsibility to share our resources with others. Therefore, one cannot “rent out” money because it is God’s and merely on loan to us.
The intent of the mitzvah is to emphasize our obligation to our co-religionists. A shared history and outlook create a unique relationship which is evidenced by the obligation to lend to our fellow Jews interest-free. Such loans demonstrate an extra level of compassion and responsibility for the welfare of our brethren. The Jewish nation is meant to behave as a cohesive unit, like a single organism, each one concerned for the other’s benefit as much as with his own. Loans with even the slightest amount of interest are forbidden, regardless of how rich or poor either party may be, or what use the money will go for. Therefore, this prohibition does not apply to a non-Jew. Rambam rules that it is obligatory to charge interest on loans to non-Jews.
A Jew is permitted to borrow money from a non-Jew and pay interest to him on the loan, thereby enriching him; and a Jewish person is also permitted to lend money to a non-Jew who asks for a loan and collect interest from him, just as non-Jews are permitted to lend and borrow money to and from each other with interest. Perhaps the underlying idea is that interest is not prohibited in relationships with any non-Jewish person or entity, including institutions and corporations not owned or controlled by Jews.
Rav S.R. Hirsch reasons that the ban on interest belongs in the category of sins between man and God. It is about an excessive [and false] sense of ownership that may prompt one to refuse to lend money to others in need unless accompanied by profit. But one who truly appreciates and understands that it is God who has the ultimate ownership would act differently. Since the crime is not about victimhood, both lender and borrower share in the violation. Furthermore, notes Rav Hirsch, utilizing one’s funds for capital investment and for paying labor (and not for financial transactions) creates the possibility of narrowing the gap between rich and poor.
Some suggest that the interest is a form of servitude, but of a financial nature. A no-interest loan is a more dignified relationship between the parties.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that lending money for interest brings in revenue without any physical effort. This stands in sharp contrast to the Torah’s approach that to be meaningful “even spiritual revenue must be earned by active involvement.”
With the rise of commercial activity in the sixteenth century, loans became sources of capital for businesses. As these kinds of loans were vital for commercial success and were not the kinds of loans first envisioned by the Torah, efforts were made to find a permissible way to charge interest on these business credits.
Charging interest is a necessary part of market life. Like charging rent, business interest is amoral, i.e., neither moral nor immoral, just business. The great economist, Adam Smith (1723-1790), explains
“That [revenue] derived from it [stock] by the person who does not employ it himself, but lends it to another, is called the interest or use of money. It is the compensation which the borrower pays to the lender, for the profit which he has an opportunity of making using the money”.
Sephardic scholar Rabbi Eli J. Monsour cites the approach of the Keli Yakar (Rav Shlomo Efrayim of Luntshitz,1550-1619) in understanding the prohibition against interest. There is always uncertainty in any business. The Torah urges us to believe in God and to recognize that it is His role and His involvement that determines success or failure.
There is much less uncertainty, however, in money lending because the collateral for the loan guarantees the creditors’ recourse should the borrower fail. The Torah wants us to live our lives knowing that ultimately nothing is guaranteed, and all is in God’s hands. Overconfidence by the creditor can undermine his faith in, and dependence on, God. The prohibition is directed at both borrower and lender because when the former pays interest he is contributing to the latter’s sense of financial security and overconfidence. But the repayment of loans to non-Jews is not guaranteed because of their ongoing and historic hostility to us. Lending to them and charging interest, therefore, is permitted. The prohibition of charging and accepting interest is presented in this parsha that discusses shemitah because both subjects are about the fundamental belief that our livelihood is in God’s hands.
The Talmud discusses an iska business arrangement in a partnership. Rabbis in Poland and subsequently in other parts of Eastern Europe created a document called “heter iska”. The essence of this document is to transform the lender-borrower arrangement into an investment partnership. The provider of the capital, now a partner in the venture, agrees to limit his share in the profits to the dollar amount of the interest payments. What was once an interest payment is now considered profit. This technical redefinition of the loan as an investment allowed Jewish commercial enterprises to succeed without the laws of interest being violated. The Keli Yakar ‘s approach would argue that the introduction of some uncertainty by making it a business and not a loan is enough to avoid the prohibition of interest. The banking industry in Israel has also adopted use of this document.
Following is the introduction to a Shtar Isko [Agreement Concerning Interest on Loans] format developed by the Beth Din of America:
“Jewish Religious Law strictly prohibits the paying or receiving of interest on loans made between Jews. However, when monies are advanced in the course of a business transaction, an agreement may be entered into, whereby the provider and receiver of these funds are considered equal partners. This partnership is based upon the stipulation that, upon request, every loss must be attested to by two trustworthy witnesses, and all profits verified by oath. All consequent profits and losses are then equally shared. However, in order to avoid these very stringent requirements, the provider of the funds, under this “Shtar Isko”, agrees to waive his share of the profits in lieu of receiving a fixed percentage of the money advanced. This percentage is then considered profit, rather than interest on a loan. This agreement becomes effective when the receiver of the funds executes a form as set below.”