In Deuteronomy 15, it states, “At the end of seven years you shall institute a remission. This is the matter of the remission: Every creditor shall remit his authority over what he has lent his fellow; he shall not press his fellow or his brother, for he has proclaimed a remission for Hashem.”
Once every seven years, the Torah prescribes a Sabbatical year for the Land of Israel. Agricultural work comes to a halt and produce of the trees is considered ownerless, free for the picking.
There is another, less known, component of the Sabbatical, or Shmita year, and that is the cancellation of debts. In Deuteronomy 15, it states, “At the end of seven years you shall institute a remission. This is the matter of the remission: Every creditor shall remit his authority over what he has lent his fellow; he shall not press his fellow or his brother, for he has proclaimed a remission for Hashem.”
You may have noticed something peculiar with how the Torah presents the concept of debt nullification. Let’s picture a modern-day court where the judge issues his ruling in favor of the defendant, and his decision is that no money is owed. How will the judge phrase his verdict?
Will he say the plaintiff may not collect any funds from the accused? Or will he say the defendant need not pay any money? The second option makes the most sense; addressing the one who now is exempt from paying.
Yet, the Torah doesn’t direct its commandment of debt cancellation at the borrower by telling him of his good fortune, that due to the Sabbatical year he doesn’t have to pay back the money he borrowed. Instead, it speaks to the lender and commands him not to attempt to collect the debt. The Torah’s unusual presentation of this idea makes us realize that we need to examine this concept a bit deeper.
The Lender’s Lesson
It seems that the Torah’s nullification of debt is in place primarily for the betterment of the lender; for him to learn and grow from the process. Through his willingness to let go of collecting the money owed, although he may experience a financial setback, he will gain significant spiritual advancement. What exactly does the lender learn from relinquishing his right to collect money rightfully owed to him?
The Chinuch, a 12th-century scholar, explains several benefits. First, the lender will learn to become a kinder, more magnanimous person by his willingness to adhere to the Torah’s principle of letting go of the debt. Also, in sync with the general theme of the Sabbatical year, he will reinforce his belief that despite his vast efforts in earning his livelihood, ultimately, sustenance comes from the Almighty.
Just as a farmer abstains from working his land in the Shmita year, and refrains from his usual involvement in earning a living, here in debt forgiveness, the businessman is given a chance to demonstrate his faith in the Creator of the world. And, finally, says the Chinuch, if one is willing to abstain from collecting even money that he rightfully deserves, he will certainly learn to distance himself from ever trying to gain a profit in a way that is dishonest or unlawful.
The Debtor’s Role
There are several indications that this law of debt cancellation was intended mostly for the character refinement of the lender and not exclusively to alleviate financial hardship for the borrower. First of all, even if the borrower is wealthy and can easily pay back the loan, still the debt is canceled, and the lender cannot collect. Also, in Psalm 37, written by King David, it states, “Wicked is the one who borrows and does not pay back.”
We see clearly that the Torah expects a person to pay back money that he or she borrowed, so much so that it calls a debt defaulter “wicked,” a rarely reserved phrase in the Torah, used only in limited circumstances.
Furthermore, the Mishnah, the first recording of the Oral Torah (Sheviis 10:9-10), states that even when a loan is to be nullified by the Shmita year, the borrower should still approach the lender and attempt to pay back the loan. Clearly, once the lender has shown his willingness to abide by the Torah’s command of forgiving the loan, he is allowed to receive the money and it is considered honorable for the lender to always pay back.
The Torah is primarily a guidebook for the world on how each of us can grow into bigger, more developed people. It contains three types of mitzvahs, each reflecting a fundamental relationship that makes up our lives.
The first are mitzvahs that are between us and God, such as not worshipping idols and the kosher dietary laws. Then, there are the mitzvahs that are interpersonal, those that teach us how to treat others in a kind and respectful manner. Finally, there is also a section of mitzvahs that are between man and himself.
These are the laws that guide a person through life and help advance and improve him into a better human being. Debt cancellation seems to be one from this last category.
Its primary focus is to teach us the many lessons we have discussed; to become kinder people who place their trust in God and strive to earn a living in an upstanding and honest way.