Religious Jews Sign Prozbul, Promise to Pay Off Debts

The end of shmita - the sabbatical year during which, according to Jewish law, the land must lie fallow - was marked by a rare event in Jewish communities around the world: the signing of a prozbul, a document that enables loans to be collected even though all debts are supposed to be forgiven during shmita.

"I hereby present you with a prozbul ... and any debt that I have [is transferred] to the Supreme Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem ... I allow them hereby to collect any debt I may have, and from now on they shall be the judges and collect on my behalf." That is part of what is written in one of the many possible versions of the prozbul, which was signed on the eve of the Rosh Hashanah holiday by Jews throughout the world.

The prozbul (a Greek term meaning "rules for the rich") was instituted about 2,000 years ago by Hillel the Elder. It was meant to provide a solution based on Jewish law to the problem of debt forgiveness during the shmita year. According to the Torah, all loans that have come due but not yet been repaid must be forgiven at the end of that year.

This rule, one of the most "socialist" precepts in the Torah, is supposed to enable the poor to rehabilitate themselves. But in Hillel the Elder's day, it was actually hurting the poor, because the rich were loath to give them loans for fear that they would not get their money back. The prozbul thus symbolically transfers the debt to the rabbinical court, thereby enabling it to be collected.

Even today, it is customary for anyone who is owed money - including someone responsible for collecting household management fees from other residents of an apartment building, or even just someone who has a positive balance in his bank account - to sign a prozbul in front of a rabbinical court or two witnesses. From a halakhic standpoint, that makes it possible for him to collect what he is owed even after Rosh Hashanah.

Though the commandment of doing away with debts is in fact null and void, this year, certain members of the religious Zionist movement tried to "revive" it. The Torah and Land Institute, along with the Pa'amonim charitable association, conducted a national campaign over the past few weeks to collect money from the public as "loans." On Monday, just before Rosh Hashanah began, these "loans" became "grants." Now, Pa'amonim will distribute them to needy people who have taken out loans and are not able to repay them.

But Uriel Lederberg, who heads Pa'amonim, told Haaretz a few weeks ago that the money will not be distributed as charity. Rather, it will be part of a Pa'amonim program in which 900 advisers from all over the country help those who are not making ends meet to learn how to balance their budgets.