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Shabbat Parashat Toldot 5776

Ask the Rabbi: Taking Ribbit from a Non-Jew in Israel

Rav Daniel Mann

Question: I understand that the reason it is permitted to take ribbit (usury) from a non-Jew is that we live among them and cannot avoid business with them. Can one who lives in Israel rely on logic that does not apply here?

 

Answer: The mishna (Bava Metzia 70b) says it is permitted to lend money to a non-Jew with interest, yet the gemara indicates that it is Rabbinically forbidden. The gemara suggests two distinctions: 1) It is permitted to lend only to ensure a basic livelihood (k’dei chayav); 2) The prohibition is to discourage business relationships that could cause a Jew to learn his counterpart’s ways, and it is therefore permitted for a talmid chacham, who is not susceptible to such relationships. According to a second version in the gemara, there is no prohibition to lend to a non-Jew.

Tosafot (ad loc.) is troubled by the fact that usury taken by Jews from non-Jews was common in their times, and presented three possible answers: 1) On this matter, which is no more than Rabbinic, we accept the gemara’s lenient version that there is no prohibition. 2) Due to great difficulty in making a living, we generally consider usury as k’dei chayav. 3) Since we anyway have to do business with non-Jews, permissibility to take interest does not change the equation on interactions. You based your question, that it should be forbidden to lend with interest in Israel, on the assumption that the third explanation is correct, which is reasonable, considering that the Rambam (Malveh 5:2) and the Tur (Yoreh Deah 159) use it. Indeed, Netivot Shalom (159:16) cites Klala D’ribbita, who suggests that it could be forbidden to lend under such circumstances. Standard practice is certainly not that way (see also Torat Ribbit 1:35), and we do feel it is important to justify it. (On an individual basis, we have no problem with the Chochmat Adam’s (130:6) praise of those who are stringent. However, making such a ruling for others is very different.)

First, we must note that this prohibition is highly unusual in that the gemara says that it does not apply to all people (i.e., talmid chacham) and that it is waived in the face of financial need. This could be a sign of focus on practical considerations, which would strengthen your question. But it is more likely a sign of great leniency and perhaps that it is not a full-fledged prohibition. It is then not difficult to rely on the opinions that there is no prohibition or that it is still considered k’dei chayav.

It is probably more correct to put this in the context of how practical halacha works. We are familiar with the concept that once Chazal, or often even post-Talmudic minhag, have forbidden something, we rarely say that things have changed and the prohibition no longer applies. A less common but still important phenomenon is that when the rabbis of a period decide, for certain reasons, to be lenient regarding a certain (usually, Rabbinic) prohibition, we do not easily reinstate the prohibition even when the leniency’s reasons have diminished. It seems that “halachic inertia” requires clear indication of strong reason to change back to old practice, even from leniency to stringency. Even in the times of the Rishonim, it seems that this prohibition was broadly ignored, even in cases where the reasons for leniency were not so strong.

In our times, there are still practical reasons to apply the leniency in Israel. First, in a global market, it is common and hard to avoid non-Jews in many fields, for Israelis to have customer bases that include many non-Jews. Furthermore, the contemporary broad reliance on heter iska all but eliminates the “problem” of issur ribbit in the business world. Therefore, it is unlikely that a person would be encouraged to significantly increase his business interaction with non-Jews to avoid the prohibition of ribbit. Also, business is often done these days with little to no personal interaction between the sides.

Thus, it is justified to assume that the broad permission that developed to lend with interest to non-Jews remains intact even in Israel.

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