Tzedakah, Loans, and Human Dignity

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.

 

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Four New Years Every Year?!

Happy New YearNew Year’s Day comes only once a year – doesn’t it?

In the Gregorian Calendar and most other calendars, that’s certainly true. But this is yet another way that the Jewish calendar is different. We celebrate FOUR New Year’s:

Rosh Hashanah is translated “the head of the year.” In the fall, on the first of Tishrei, we celebrate the most well-known New Year’s Day in Judaism. This is the day that the number of the year changes (5774 to 5775, etc.) It’s the day we remember the beginning of Jewish time (the Creation) and reflect on the end of Jewish time, as well. It is also the Biblical date for starting the sabbatical and jubilee (shemita) years. For American Jews, this is a day for synagogue and a festive meal.

Tu B’Shevat (the 15th of Shevat) is the New Year of the Trees which falls in midwinter. It began as an accounting device, a “fiscal year” for tithing produce from trees (olives, dates, figs, etc.) In the 16th century, the mystical rabbis of Safed were excited to be living in the land of Israel after their flight from Spain, and they began to observe the day with a seder and mystical symbolism. In the 19th century, Zionists celebrated the day as a celebration of the greening of the land of Israel, and in the 21st century, the day has come to be a day of ecological concern and action.

1st of Nisan in early spring is the first day of the first month of the Biblical year. According to Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:1, the first of Nisan is “the new year for kings and for festivals.” The reigns of kings were calculated from this date, and the festival of Passover, which falls later in Nisan, is the festival which begins the history of the Jews as a nation.

1st of Elul in late summer was the beginning of the fiscal year for animal tithes in Israel. When the temple stood, people who raised animals were obligated to give a tithe from their flocks. Nowadays this is the date upon which we begin the process of preparation for the purification of the Days of Awe in the following month.

As a Jew living in the San Francisco Bay Area, I live in a place where we also celebrate the Gregorian New Year on Jan 1, the Chinese New Year in the spring, and the Islamic New Year which travels around the seasons, a feature of their lunar calendar!

Every New Year is a moment of hope in the stream of time, reminding us that our days are limited but that what lies ahead is as yet unwritten. As the great medieval Jewish philosopher Bachya Ibn Pekuda wrote,

“Our days are scrolls. Write in them what you wish to be remembered.”

What is the Book of Life?

Cuneiform tablet
Cuneiform Tablet: Assyrian accounting

There is an ancient tradition that on Rosh HaShanah our names are “written in the Book of Life” if we are living good lives, and that sinners have the ten days to Yom Kippur to do the work of teshuvah. (Click the link if you are not familiar with teshuvah. It means more than the English “repentance.”)

Do modern Jews believe that God has an actual account book in which our lives are measured? In a word, no.

This tradition has its roots in Biblical metaphor. In Isaiah 4:3, the prophet speaks of the survivors of the Babylonian invasion as those who are “recorded for life in Jerusalem.”  It is referenced more clearly in a book of midrash called the Book of Jubilees that was not accepted for inclusion in most Bibles. The idea of a divine accounting book has its origins in Babylonia, where the concept of a Day of Judgment also first appeared. The civilizations of Mesopotamia were enthusiastic about bookkeeping. Much of the written materials we have from them are accounting books; it’s not surprising that they thought the gods would love accounting, too.

So why keep this tradition, if we don’t take it literally? The written word is a powerful image in the Jewish imagination. Words are powerful (they are the means of Creation in Genesis) – the written word even more so. God writes on the tablets at Sinai, to establish the laws of the covenant. The medieval teacher Bachya ibn Pekuda wrote, “Our days are scrolls. Write on them what you wish to be remembered.”

God may not keep an actual accounting book, but our lives are finite. None of us knows when we are going to die, only that we will not live forever. On Yom Kippur, we take a day to think seriously about our lives. What have we neglected? What have we done that we would regret? On Yom Kippur, there is still time to make it right. But the image of the Book of Life pushes us to get moving. Do not delay another hour! Because we don’t know how long we’ve got, how many more pages there are in our book.

While Jewish tradition is very vague about afterlife, it is sharply clear about this life, and unromantic about death. Death is an end to this life. On that day, whenever it comes, we’ve used our last opportunity to do good or to reconcile. Yom Kippur is a day and the month of Elul is a season, when we remind ourselves of that.

What would you regret if you knew you were going to die tomorrow? What would you change?

What can you do about it while you are still alive?