Economic Exploitation is Blasphemy: D’var Torah for Parashat Mishpatim 

Published Feb 12, 2021
Aryeh Bernstein speaking with his hand raised outward

Immediately on the heels of the sensational introduction to the Revelation at Sinai via the Ten Commandments, the Torah grounds those lofty principles into the nitty-gritty of civil law: this freedom thing is going to be real. That’s our parasha, “Mishpatim”/“Laws”, and at its heart is a prohibition at the core of much of Jewish and Christian history and the histories of European mercantile economics, and even of antisemitism: the prohibition of predatory lending, of lending money for interest:

If you lend to My people, the poor person with you, do not be to them as a creditor: do not lay interest upon them(Sh’mot/Exodus 22:24). 

People lend money for a few different motivations. Sometimes they lend altruistically — someone needs a hand and you’re willing to offer it. This is essentially tzedakah to help someone out. Sure, you structure it as a loan and not a gift, so that they may maintain their dignity and because you’d be happy not to lose the money, but this kind of loan is ultimately about helping a vulnerable person: exacting profit would certainly be out of line.  

Other times, people lend for business purposes, in order to make a profit. Sometimes, this is wealthy people or institutions lending to middle-class climbers, so that they can afford, say, to expand their business. This is investment or venture capital or home loans or the like, and they are win-win. The person borrowing is willing to pay some interest to the lender because the investment will grow their personal security and wealth, and the lender grows their wealth over time through the interest.

People also lend to poor people for profit. This is predatory lending: a person borrows money in desperation, while the same conditions that made them desperate in the first place jeopardize their chances of paying back promptly. The profit motive in this kind of loan is that the borrower won’t pay back on time, so that the lender will have an ongoing source of income as the borrower is buried under ever-growing interest debt. This kind of exploitation, which might well be thought of as the American way, is what the Torah forbids most directly: do not charge interest to a poor person.

The Hebrew word translated as “creditor” is נֹשֶׁה/nosheh, from a root meaning to empty out or make something forgotten. For example, when Yoseph names his son Menashe, from the same root, he explains, “For God has made me completely forget my hardship and my parental home” (Bereishit/Genesis 41:51). The Torah uses a derogatory term to describe someone who would lend at interest to a poor person. If you exact interest from a poor person, you’re erasing them from free, liberated life. If you try to profit off a poor person, you’re a swindler, a shark, a gouger.

Anxiety about preventing predatory lending pervades the literature of halakha/Jewish law. To make sure that the form of lending money for interest retains identifiable taboo status, the Rabbis extend the prohibition of lending at interest to all loans, not just those to poor people. Acceptable, investment-type loans must be re-structured as an actual investment (called an “‘iska”), in which the would-be lender assumes risk alongside the borrower (Talmud Bavli, Bava Metzi‘a 104b). The Rabbis note that this prohibition appears elsewhere in the Torah, as well (VaYikra/Leviticus 25:36-37 and Devarim/Deuteronomy 23:20-21), and in multi-clause verses, and calculate that engaging in predatory lending runs afoul of six Biblical prohibitions (Mishna Bava Metzia‘ 5:11). Even more striking, the Mishna emphasizes that at least some of these prohibitions apply not only to the lender, but to everyone involved in the transaction:

These are they who transgress the prohibition [of interest]:  The lender, the borrower, the guarantor, and the witnesses, and the Sages say, even the scribe” (Mishna Bava Metzi‘a 5:11).

Recognizing that unscrupulous people hungry for profit will always try to find formal loopholes around the law as written, the Rambam (1135-1204, Spain, Egypt) adds a line to his legal code clarifying that the jobs listed there in the Mishna are not exhaustive of who is culpable, but indicative: “anyone who was any kind of broker between them or assisted either one of them or gave instruction violates ‘do not put a stumbling-block before the blind’” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Lender and Borrower, 4:2). Everyone is culpable. The Rabbis want to smoke everyone out, all the lawyers, middle agents, and assistants behind whom the exploitative profiteers try to hide. By criminalizing every aspect of the transaction, the predatory lenders should have no human shields. 

Make no mistake, though: the Rabbis understand very well that the core criminal is the one lending with interest and that the issue is abuse of power. Rabbi Shim‘on teaches that a lender may not even ask a borrower with outstanding debt to them, “Go and greet So-and-So” or, “Find out if Such-and-such a person has come” (Midrash Sifrei Devarim #262, Mishna Bava Metzia‘ 5:10). These explicit or implied requests for favors are “interest via speech”: the creditor relies on the debt that the borrower feels to them to exact more favors, more profit, more benefit, asserting more dominance. The Torah forbids that.

Rabbi Shim‘on ben El‘azar gets to the heart of what a predatory lender is really doing when they defy the Torah’s insistence not to exploit poor people: “They are making the Torah out to be a forgery and Moshe to be stupid. It’s as if they’re saying, ‘If Moshe only knew how much profit could be made, he wouldn’t have written this’” (Tosefta Bava Metzia‘ 6:17). Anyone who sets out to profit off the poor has to know that they are upending the Torah, so what they’re really saying, especially if they masquerade as observant Jews, is that the Torah is quaint and antiquated, as though profit and wealth are new concepts that the Torah just didn’t know about. They justify exploitation by assuming that anyone who knew about possibilities in exploitation would justify it, as well. Profit is king. The great 17th Century halakhic master known as the Taz (Rabbi David Segal, c. 1586-1667, Poland) suggests that Rabbi Shim‘on is actually identifying a more subtle and perhaps more insidious logic shared by the predatory lender. They wouldn’t necessarily have the audacity to claim that Moshe couldn’t have known about the profits to be made by a lender through interest: that’s obvious and it’s just not a credible claim about Moshe. What predatory lenders are really claiming, says the Taz in interpretation of Rabbi Shim‘on, is that “there is good profit for the borrower in having access to money, which is a great profit to them, so there must not be a prohibition” (Taz on Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De‘ah 160:1). The villains are not only the “greed is good” ideologues, but even more pernicious, those who outrageously argue that exploitation is for the benefit of the exploited, that check-cashing stores and college loan companies are public servants, rather than profit gouging predators.

Rav Ya‘akov bar Asher, in his magisterial legal code, the Tur, unpacks what we’re really talking about: when someone lends with interest, “it is as though that person denied the exodus from Egypt and the God of Israel” (Tur Yoreh De‘ah 160). Economic exploitation is blasphemy. The Tur understands that this law, all the law, isn’t just “the boring parts” that come after the hot story. The story was about this law and had the purpose of leading to this law. Phara‘oh’s regime was so noxious to God precisely because it erased free people through economic exploitation. Slavery doesn’t come out of nowhere; it has many constituent parts. The civil law of our parasha begins with strict limits on one’s ability to collect debts through indentured labor and it exhorts us twice to remember that we were aliens in Egypt — famine refugees who knew both the experience of being protected and empowered by a just Phara‘oh who could have exploited us but didn’t, and the experience of being defamed, exploited, and enslaved. This isn’t just stories and memories; it’s concrete financial regulation. The very essence of the Torah is the proposition that rich people exploiting poor people for profit is a grievous sin, a blasphemous rejection of God, a denial of the Exodus experience, a rejection of Torah in full.

Shabbat shalom.


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