It was late last week that I was scrolling through my Facebook feed when I came across a friend’s post (see above.) Whenever any of my secular friends talk about anything on social media that references the bible, I have to fight the overwhelming urge to become didactic. So I left my singular comment.
But then, while reading over parsha Behar this week I saw that it this is the Torah portion that actually talks about not taking interest. So with that in mind I thought it appropriate to explore the mitzvah. (Sorry for the political bait and switch, but I’m not going to be talking much about the representative from New York’s 14th district.)
No Interest? How Interesting!
“You shall not take from [your brother] interest or usury and you shall fear your God, and your brother shall live with you. You must not lend him your money with interest and usuriously…” (Vayikra 25: 36-37)
So we see the two terms interest and usury used. We usually understand interest as money paid back to the lender in addition to the original loan to give the lender incentive to offer the loan. Usury is defined as the action or practice of lending money at unreasonably high rates of interest (now illegal). But if the Torah bans us from making loans with any interest at all, why would it need to prohibit usury? If I know I can’t lift 200 pounds, surely I’d know I can’t lift 1000. (If you know your Torah logic terms, it’s the opposite of a col v’homer.)
To make sense of this redundancy, let’s look at the Hebrew. The two words are נֶ֣שֶׁךְ and תַרְבִּ֔ית. They both translate simply as interest and don’t allude to our understanding of the word usury. That doesn’t help our redundancy problem so let’s look at the shoreshim (or root of the words). רב means increase (makes sense) while נשך means bite (kinda odd). Rashi’s commentary on the verse, gives us some clarity. He essentially says that the verse gives us two terms because the Torah regards taking interest as so bad, that it makes two separate prohibitions the lender would violate. Double whammy. And the Talmud in Baba Metziah supports and gives meaning to the words themselves saying; “The ‘interest’ is the bite (or pain) the lender takes out of the borrower’s pocket; the ‘usury’ is the increase (or pleasure/benefit) the lender gets.”
Living Within our Means Means a Lot
We can already see that in the above passage how the seeds of disharmony are planted when money is lent with interest. The profit incentivizes the lender while the borrower who is already in a weak state potentially saves themselves in the short term only to be in a worse place later. But where a borrower in desperate straits may need to take on the risk, to take on interest without the need cultivates an even more destructive character trait.
It’s hard to imagine a modern economy without credit cards. Though things like the Diners Card existed previously, the first credit card that allowed consumers to hold debt beyond a single month was introduced by Bank of America in 1951. Since then, the revolving credit card debt for the average American has reached around $7,000. It doesn’t take a genius to see why the Torah might advise against regularly lending with interest.
A Rabbi I learn from gave the insight that it is essential that one live within their means and learn to be satisfied with what they have. The modern day credit card allows for a person to covet what their neighbor possesses and rather than work to attain that material possession, attain it immediately. Where they simply would have been a slave to their desire, now they are a slave to the creditor too.
Investment vs Interest
Though the Torah prohibits lending with interest, our tradition encourages investing and reaping the benefits. How is this not a contradiction? Where a loan is a single action where the lender receives compounding benefit, an investment requires continual involvement, guidance, sharing of ownership, and the possibility of additional funding. In short, an investment creates a relationship between the parties with ongoing reward that continues through the life of the investment.
This is how God runs the world, not through loan but through investment. He gives us our lives and our unique special talents not to check out and then at the end of our lives says, “So where’s My payback?” But instead He continually guides us, remaining intimately involved, and gives us what we need when we need it. To give by investment ourselves may mean more risk, but in the end it helps the borrower on a deeper and more dignified level. It changes the transaction from monetary to chessed (kindness).
Investing in Reality
Officially speaking, the prohibition of taking interest is strictly only between Jew and Jew. Jews can lend to non-Jews with interest, which is actually how I believe Jews became lenders in Europe back in the day. And despite the mitzvah, the economics of Israel have found a kosher way to lend Jew to Jew with interest, that’s just how pervasive debt in the world economy has become. But despite those loopholes, I think it is extraordinarily relevant the lessons the Torah is trying to teach us. Live within your means, don’t covet your neighbor’s things, invest rather than loan, and know that if you do lend with interest you may be taking on double trouble. And though I may doubt the congresswoman’s understanding of the bible’s take on lending, she just may somewhere be in the ballpark of the Torah’s spirit.
On a separate note, between Marc, myself, and all the guest bloggers we’ve had over the last four years, this is our 400th article. Thank you to all who read SixDegreesOfKosherBacon regularly and know that every time you like, share, or comment on any of our pieces, it really means a lot. Marc and I feel tremendous gratitude that we’ve been able to keep this page going and we hope you all keep reading over the next 400. Good Shabbos.