Ribbis – Fearing God

Rabbi Dr. Darrel Ginsberg

The recent financial crisis has helped shed light on many of the different types of exotic loans that exist, terms like “subprime” and “alt-a” becoming part of our common vernacular. The very idea of a loan that does not assume the charging of interest (ribbis) is nothing short of an anomaly in the business world today. It has become so commonplace that in many instances, the prohibition of charging interest to another Jew becomes lost, forgotten, or incorrectly circumvented. In this week’s parsha, we are re-introduced to this prohibition, with a new factor to help prevent us from violating this most important commandment. 

In Parshas Behar (Vayikra 25:36), the Torah tells us as follows:

“You shall not take from him interest or usury and you shall fear your G-d, and your brother shall live with you”

This prohibition is described earlier in the Torah, in Parshas Mishpatim (Shemos 22:24). However, the additional element here is how not charging interest on a loan to a Jew is somehow tied into yiras Hashem, fearing God. Rashi notes this  (ibid “And you shall fear...”) and offers the following explanations:

“Because a person's desire is attracted to [the idea of] usury, it is difficult to separate him from it; for he persuades himself that it is permissible because of his money which is idle in his (the borrower's) possession. [Therefore] it was necessary to say "you shall fear your G-d." Or [he may try to circumvent the prohibition] by pretending [that] the money  is a non-Jew's in order to lend them to a Jew with interest, behold, this matter is given over to a man's heart and thought, and it was therefore necessary to say, ‘You shall fear your God..’”

Interestingly, Rashi offers two separate explanations as to how fearing God plays a role in preventing ribbis. Of course, what Rashi is writing requires further elucidation. What does fearing God have to do with the difficulty in being “separate” from this activity? One could apply the notion of fearing God as a preventive to any sin one might engage in. What is unique about ribbis? 

The second explanation also needs to be clarified. Rashi writes how an individual’s misrepresentation of his money in a loan which thereby “allows” for charging the Jew interest, is something “given over to a man’s heart and thought”. What does this mean? The Talmud (Bava Metziya 68b) explains how the Torah uses the term “you shall fear your God” immediately after describing situations where a person may act in a manner where his intentions are masked. Rashi (ibid “since this is a matter...”) expounds on this concept of "matters handed over to the heart". He explains that in these situations, there is nothing demonstrable in the person’s behavior to indicate whether he is acting in good or bad faith, his intent is not known to an outside observer. Only God knows the person’s true intentions, a situation that should bring about yiras Hashem, fear of God. It happens to be that this concept exists beyond ribbis. For example, regarding the halacha of standing up in the presence of a talmid chacham, the Torah tells us, (Vayikra 19:32): “you shall fear your God.” We again see the juxtaposition of fearing God with a specific action. The Talmud (Kiddushin 32b) elaborates, explaining how fearing God is brought as a counterweight to a situation that can emerge when obligated to stand for a talmid chacham, a learned man. A person may see the talmid chacham but before the chacham enters into his four amos, he turns away. In doing so, those observing may conclude he simply did not see the talmid chacham. However, his intention was to specifically avoid standing for this important individual. Again, nothing in his action definitively reveals his true intention. 

We now see that this scheme of tricking the Jew into believing it is the money of a non-Jew falls into the greater category of "matters handed over to the heart". That being said, how does fearing God work here? A person knows that God is all-knowing — he cannot “hide” his thoughts. What new insight is being offered here?

Let’s first get a grasp of the concept of yiras Hashem. The Rambam (Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 2:2), in one of the most important ideas to emerge from his Mishneh Torah, defines the notion of love of God (ahavas Hashem) and fear of God. When a person studies his surrounding world, he sees the infinite chachma within it and desires to know God. This is ahavas Hashem. And once he internalizes this concept, he is taken aback, aware of his place in the universe, as well as his status as a mere human who is nevertheless a creation of God. This is yiras Hashem. We see that fearing God is not to be thought of in a child-parent manner, a fear of punishment or retribution. Rather, it is the proper view of the self in relation to God. This realization should guide us in all of the activities and decisions in our lives, both individually and within society.

This explanation serves as an appropriate backdrop to the issue of ribbis. Rashi’s first answer refers to a person’s inability to “separate” himself from charging interest, and yiras Hashem counteracts this. How so? In the business world, a person’s money always has to have a function. Whether it is used for purchasing, or even as a means to make more money, it is always directed towards the financial goal of serving its owner. Yet, when loaning money to a Jew, the funds are “idle,” as Rashi puts it. In other words, when conducting business, a person thinks his money should be put to use, to benefit himself. It is not that he is unwilling to give up the money (a different impediment that emerges in the area of tzedaka) rather, he finds it troubling to part with what he considers the primary function of his money. If his money is not being used to benefit him, whether for purchasing objects or making him more money, it should stay in his pocket. This is why there is resistance to providing an “interest free” loan. A person who has the right view of his place in the world would understand that the benefit of money is not limited to just himself. The fact that the other Jew is able to use his money is a benefit, an objective benefit. A person must, therefore, disengage the self from the benefit of money, viewing it in the proper context. It is the redirection from the realm of the good just for the self to the realm of the more universal good that reflects yiras Hashem. 

The second explanation also uses yiras Hashem as a counter, where the person’s actions serve as an outgrowth of the problem of ribbis. A person, especially in the business world, quite often places a tremendous amount of energy and focus into how he is perceived by his peers. He lives under this constant concern, behaving in a way that he feels will shed a positive light on him. The businessman might act in a manner that people would think of as “good,” when all along his true intentions are masked, all in order to keep up a certain image (i.e.Bernie Madoff). His security is completely dependent upon social judgment—not who he is but how he is perceived. Charging interest is a microcosm of this overall problem. He wants to charge interest and only refrains from doing so out of concern with how he would be perceived if he did so. Having one’s self-image tied to other people’s approval naturally results in a distorted life, taking a person away from the ideals of Judaism. The image of the self and its subsequent security must always be tied to God. It is not the childish “fear” that God knows what a person is thinking that should motivate him. Instead, a person’s recognition of God’s infinite knowledge, a reflective state emerging from yiras Hashem, should serve to drive the person’s self-image and security into the proper arena. He sees himself for who he really is – and acts in line with this knowledge.

This is not to say that the system of halacha does not provide for situations where loans are made between Jews with interest. However, it is important to understand the intrinsic attraction to charging interest to another Jew, as well as how one’s attachment to the area feeds his distorted self-image. The Torah, in its warning about yiras Hashem in the context of charging interest, is showing us how we must incorporate the fundamental concepts of fearing God in each of our behaviors and decisions between us all.