Tailoring an Ancient Law for Today's World

This is the dream of anyone who has to repay a loan or a mortgage, who is battling an overdraft at the bank, or who is afraid of discovering a pile of unpaid parking tickets in his glove compartment: One day, all the banks, all the local authorities and all the wealthy financiers will announce an amnesty on private debts and allow the citizenry to start afresh, with a clean slate.

This radical economic plan, which originates in the Book of Deuteronomy as one of the commandments governing the shmita (sabbatical) year, became a dead letter in the days of Hillel the Elder, in the first century B.C.E., when he realized that it hamstrung the economy. He therefore bypassed the shmita law with a legal procedure called a pruzbul, which makes private debts public, and therefore collectible.

Now, over 2,000 years later, a move is afoot to resuscitate the loan amnesty and give it a modern guise. A substantial sum of about NIS 600,000, which has been collected over the past three weeks by a Torah institute and a social welfare association, will finance the opening round of a unique project aimed at dusting off this most socially just of precepts in the Book of Books.

"At the end of every seven years thou shalt make a release," begins the 15th chapter of Deuteronomy, "And this is the manner of the release: Every creditor shall release that which he has lent to his neighbor; he shall not exact it of his neighbor and his brother; because the Lord's release has been proclaimed."

A lofty social ideal

This precept is one of the three main laws of shmita observance. The first is to let the land lie fallow, which in modern times has sparked struggles among various kashrut organizations over money and religious interpretations; this year, that struggle was settled by the High Court of Justice.

The second is the Hakhel assembly held during the intermediate days of Sukkot in the year following a shmita year. But all that is left of the third precept, the amnesty on debts, is a lofty social ideal (or a nightmare for families like the Ofers, Wertheims and Arisons).

This precept calls for an amnesty on all private loans that are past due and unpaid, and is effective on the 29th of the Hebrew month of Elul each shmita year.

This year, a new organization is combining the loan amnesty precept with charity.

The Israeli Fund for Loan Amnesty - Nedivei Eretz, established by the Torah & Land Institute and the Paamonim charitable association, has invited the public to observe the amnesty by depositing money with the fund as a loan that will be forgiven on the last day of the shmita year, which this year falls on September 29.

On that day, the loan will become a donation that will be given to needy families, religious and secular, to help them pay their debts.

Uriel Lederberg, chairman of Paamonim, stressed that this money will not be given unconditionally to the debtors. Paamonim is different from other social assistance organizations in that it conditions financial assistance on financial counseling, provided by some 900 volunteers at the organization's 50 branches nationwide.

"Economic rehabilitation, that is what we do," explained Lederberg. "The idea is to give people a chance to start over without constant charity. To us, success is a family with a balanced budget that manages its economic affairs wisely."

A public committee will allocate the money collected by the fund. The panel is comprised of former Finance Ministry director general Prof. Ben Zion Zilberfarb; Prof. Eliav Shuchtman of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's law school; and Rabbi Yigal Kaminetsky of the Torah & Land Institute, who initiated the project. Many leading religious Zionist rabbis have endorsed the effort, including Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein and Rabbi Meir Mazuz. No Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox rabbis have added their names.

"We tried," said Lederberg, "but we realized the ultra-Orthodox rabbis would not sign alongside the Zionist rabbis."

The appeal to the public was also addressed to banks and commercial entities, which were asked, in the spirit of the amnesty, to match the funds collected from the public in order to help cover people's debts.

Lederberg said that the fund is not intended to annul the pruzbul. "Hillel the Elder's idea is still valid today. The fund's purpose is not to erase [debts], but rather to act in the spirit of the loan amnesty. The Torah stresses seven times that the borrower is poor. The whole idea concerns loans to the poor, to help them start afresh.

"The Torah commands that they be relieved of their indebtedness to the lenders," he continued. "This does not relieve them of responsibility, but rather allows them to repay the loans without pressure.

What we are saying, as the year draws to a close, is that shmita applies not only to fruits and vegetables, and to the wars between the ultra-Orthodox and the religious Zionists over one form of kashrut observance or another.

"The Torah makes a statement about social justice. Our main focus is on religious observance, and not specifically on social justice, although I believe very strongly in that. For religious Jews, this [fund] is an observance of shmita. But it would pain me greatly if it were to remain only among the religious. There is an important social idea here that should cross all these [sectarian] borders."