The fifth perek deals with the prohibition of usury or taking interest on a loan. Interest is commonly understood as the charge paid for the right to use another person’s money. Why is taking interest prohibited? The question is further strengthened as both parties indeed agree to the terms of the loan. Why is this not tantamount to any other rental deal where one party pays another for the use of their property.
The Sefer HaChinnuch (68) writes that it is the subtle destructive nature of interest that is at the core of the prohibition:
At the root of the precept lies the reason that the good, benevolent G-d desires the settled communal existence of His people that He chose. For this reason He commanded to remove a stumbling-block from their path, so that one should not swallow up the life-force of another without the other realising it, until he finds his house empty and bereft of every good.
Indeed Chazal explain that the Torah calls interest neshech as it is similar to a snake’s bite (“nashach”) which at first appears small and insignificant until poison causes swelling and eventually overtakes the person.
Rav Hirsh (Vayikra 25:36) has difficulty with viewing interest as being ethically wrong. Firstly if that were the case, there would not be an equal prohibition for both the lender and the borrower. Secondly, the exceptions learnt in the Mishnayot, where one can charge interest would not be justified.
Rav Hirsh therefore has a completely different understanding of this prohibition. He points out that ordinarily, if our money was truly ours, then there is nothing unethical about taking interest. Had the lender not lent the money, it could been used as fruitful capital. The interest would have been seen as compensation. Instead this prohibition is “a great act of acknowledgement of recognising G-d as the L-rd and Owner of our moveable property, just as Shmitat Karka and Yovel are, regarding His mastery and Right of disposal of our landed property”. He continues,\ “G-d has the real right of disposal of [the money in our possession] and He has made it our duty to place some of “His” property that happens to be in our hands into the hand of our brother, not only to provide the necessities for his life, but also for the upkeep and continuation of his business”. Accordingly this prohibition serves as a reminder for the lender as to who is the true owner of his possessions.
Interestingly the Ramban (Devarim ) also draws a parallel between not charging interest and shmittah. He however directs the focus back to the borrower explaining that this prohibition is motivated in encouraging acts of chesed amongst Am Yisrael.
Finally the Kli Yakar explains the importance of this prohibition for the lender from a different angle. He explains that at the heart of most business dealings is an element of risk and uncertainty. One can never really be sure of the full success of his venture. Consequently one is compelled to enhance his bitachon, trust, in HaKadosh Baruch Hu. Charging interest however is different. When one lends money on interest, the returns are guaranteed. Consequently there is a very real danger that one’s sense of bitachon will be weakened if not removed all together.
We have therefore seen a number of reason for the prohibition of taking interest. Some related to protecting the borrower, while others focused on the impact that such endeavours have on the lender himself.
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