Image: Three stacks of coins, with seedlings sprouting from the tops. (nattanan23/Pixabay)
If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, do not act toward them like a creditor; exact no interest from them. – Exodus 22:24
This verse in Parashat Mishpatim [Laws] establishes the top of Maimonides’ famous ladder of giving tzedakah: it begins im talveh (“if you lend”), not im noteh (“if you give”). Why is lending the preferred form of assisting the needy? And why, if that is the case, must there be no interest charged?
In the 11th century, Rabbeinu Bachya affirmed the teaching of Maimonides, and explained, “The loan is greater than the gift because it strengthens the recipient and he need not be ashamed of it.” He then quoted Shemot Rabbah 31:15:
When you lend money to my people, to the poor among you… All the creations of the Holy borrow from one another. The day borrows [time] from the night and the night borrows [time] from the day… The moon borrows [light] from the stars… – Shemot Rabbah 31:15
Borrowing and lending are integral to creation; they predate the invention of money. For instance, manure lends its nutrients to the soil, the crop borrows moisture and nitrogen from the soil, the cow eats the crop for nourishment, and leaves its manure on the ground. All creations of the Holy One borrow and lend from one another, and we are no different, borrowing and lending but remaining equal before God.
Both Maimonides and Bachya are concerned that we preserve the dignity of the recipient of tzedakah. Remember, embarrassing a person is strictly forbidden:
Anyone who humiliates another in public, it is as though he were spilling blood. – Bava Metzia 58b (Babylonian Talmud)
We must tread carefully when we give tzedakah. It is a mitzvah, but only if we can do it without embarrassing the recipient. Giving assistance in the form of a loan or a business partnership preserves the dignity of the needy person. It is less demeaning to take a loan than it is to receive charity, because there is an implication that the misfortune is only temporary.
Why then does the tradition discourage charging interest on a helpful loan, say, enough to cover costs or compensate for the unavailability of funds?
The answer is in the word k’noseh (“like a creditor”). A creditor is in a position of advantage over a debtor. A creditor holds the debt over the head of the borrower. That is not in keeping with the spirit of tzedakah, the root of which means “justice,” not “charity.” Also, interest accrues, and the borrower can wind up deeper and deeper in debt. Therefore we are forbidden to charge interest on such a loan.
For more about loans and tzedakah, see The Highest Form of Jewish Giving might be a surprise.
One popular option for fulfilling this mitzvah is to contribute to your local Jewish Free Loan Society, To find it, go to the website of the International Association of Jewish Free Loans. By going through such an institution, we remove all embarrassment by making the face of the donor invisible, and normalizing the act of receiving assistance.