“At the end of seven years you shall institute a release… every creditor shall release what he lent his friend ….” (Devarim 15:1-2)
This column is dedicated in recognition of the upcoming year of Shemittah, beginning Rosh Hashanah 5782. During the year of Shemittah, residents of Eretz Yisroel abstain from cultivating their fields. It is known as shemitas karka – release of the land. There is also the aspect of Shemittah observance known as shemitas kesafim – release of debts – whereby all outstanding debts are cancelled, and creditors are prohibited from collecting them.
The reason for this mitzvah, as cited in the Sefer HaChinuch, is to promote the refinement of one’s character, to look favorably on others, to cultivate a generous spirit, and to increase true emunah and bitachon in Hashem. This practice will earn us great blessing and mercy from Hashem. In addition, the fact that one’s outstanding loans – which ostensibly the creditor justly expects to be repaid – are cancelled fosters a stronger incentive to refrain from desiring what belongs to one’s neighbor or stealing any such coveted item.
R’ Bentzion Mutzafi notes that if one knows that his loan will not be repaid after Shemittah, people would refrain from lending money to the poor. That is why the Torah continues, (ibid. 19), “Beware … lest you will begrudge your needy brother and not give him ….” The Torah therefore gives additional blessing for one who withstands the nisayon (challenge) and lends to the poor, even though he knows the loan can be cancelled.
Nevertheless, despite the warning in the Torah not to ignore the pleas of the poor, there were people who avoided lending money to people in need during the year of Shemittah. For that reason, Hillel the Elder instituted the pruzbul, a unique document that permits the creditor to transfer the private loan into a loan made by beis din, which is not subject to the laws of shemittas kesafim. The etymology of the word pruzbul is a contraction derived from three words in Greek, proz, bulei, butei, which means an enactment for the rich and for the poor. The text of the pruzbul reads: I hand over to you [name], the judges of [this] Beis Din my loans so that I am able to collect any money owed to me from [name of person] at any time I shall so wish.
A Shemittah Story
For many years, an exceedingly poor man regularly begged for coins in the streets of the town. From time to time, he would supplement his earnings with a bundle of some small items which he attempted to sell.
One evening during the month of Elul, the beggar Yossel was visited by his friend, Moshe, who traveled throughout Europe raising money for organizations and yeshivos in need.
“Yossel,” exclaimed Moshe, “your salvation is near; your extreme poverty will be over.” With that he took out a bundle of money from the depths of his coat pocket and gave it to Yossel, who was understandably shocked.
Moshe continued, “During my recent travels I encountered a very wealthy cousin of yours. When he heard of your dire straits, he gave me this money. I assure you that for him it wasn’t all that much, but for you it’s a lifesaver!” He then whispered to him quietly, “There is only one small problem. You will not be able to use this currency here. You will have to go somewhere else to exchange it.”
“What am I going to do?” cried Yossel. “Changing money is a problem of the wealthy!”
Moshe rubbed his forehead in deep thought, and then told Yossel, “I have the perfect solution that will help both of us. Lend me the money for now because I am marrying off my daughter and I could use the cash. I’ll give you collateral and after the Yomim Tovim I will return the money to you. What do you think?”
Yossel was very amenable to the suggestion, especially since his friend Moshe had facilitated this windfall in the first place.
That year on Shabbos Shuva, Yossel went to hear the drasha of the Rav Yossel found the presentation very interesting; it included points about the Shemittah year that was upon them. Yossel was especially intrigued by Rav’s mention that if one had not arranged a pruzbul for a loan that was made, then the debtor was exempt from paying back the loan. Yossel never had any need to know this halacha. He had never borrowed money, and he had certainly never lent anyone money. But this year he had in fact given his friend Moshe a very big loan which he would now not have to repay. Needless to say, Yossel returned home a sad and dejected man.
“What happened?” asked his wife anxiously.
Yossel related to his wife what he had learned from the Rav. His wife, however, had an unshakable faith in Hashem, and she stated firmly, “Yossel, this is a nisayon, and you must remain strong. Hashem will send His salvation a different way.” She reminded him that he had been afforded the fortuitous opportunity to perform a mitzvah that he could otherwise never dream of fulfilling.
After Sukkos, Moshe returned with the money that he owed Yossel, but Yossel told him delightedly that the loan had been cancelled and explained what he had learned. Initially Moshe could not understand why Yossel was refusing the money, but he could not deny the joy that Yossel was deriving from the fulfillment of this mitzvah. He set out for home, contemplating how Yossel could recover his money.
It was only a short while later, when two officers from the government knocked on Yossel’s door. “We have heard that you have illegal money on your premises, which is cause for severe punishment.”
Yossel stated unequivocally, “That is a complete lie. You can search the entire house, but you will not find even one coin.” Although the officers searched tirelessly, in every possible hiding place, they could not find anything, and they finally left.
Yossel raised his hands to Heaven and said, “I give thanks to You, Master of the world, that I was privileged to fulfill the mitzvah of shemittah, and in that merit I was saved from severe punishment.”