Loans with no payback? The Shemitah Year

I’ve read a lot of your books, yet didn’t see you ever speak about this particular thing: 

Reading the Books of Law, I see quite a few mentions about helping out the poor. Not by giveaways, but by lending them what they need (Deut. 15:7-8). It would seem to be logical to give away, But Scripture says, “Lend,” and then, every seventh year you should forgive the debt if that is not paid. 

My questions is: I’d never think that the Bible would endorse free-rides or parasitism, but I can’t find the Bible speaking harshly to the borrower. It is quite demanding—you must give, if they don’t pay—you must forgive. Seems like license for a free-ride. I borrow, do not pay, they must forgive, and then, when I come to borrow again, they must give again… Can’t believe it to be what the Bible means to say. Could you, please share more light on that? Thank you.



Dear Victor,

How should a society deal with money? After thousands of years of human history, we are still trying to figure this out. Should it be, “From each according to his ability to each according to his need,” as Karl Marx wrote? Should we follow Ayn Rand’s vision where only those who produce survive and charity is a vulgar concept?

In our opinion, the closer countries get to the Biblical vision, which neither of the above mentioned authors did, the stronger the society will be. Yet, the Biblical vision is complex, and while it includes the verses you quote, that is not by any means the entire story.

The Shmitah year that takes place every seventh year in the land of Israel which you reference, functions above natural law and was intended to apply only in the Holy Land under Biblically-loyal administration.  There are several categories of people in need and they all receive different treatment, according to circumstance.

For instance, the Hebrew used for a person in financial need in those verses, an “evyon,” is one category. Throughout Scripture there are other Hebrew words such as “ani,” and “dal,” that all get translated in English as poor, ignoring the important legal distinctions and nuances.

The Biblical system deals with the reality that there are those who are needy because of their own choices or lack of work ethic, those who are battered by unfortunate circumstances out of their control, widows, orphans and ill people, etc. It has many pieces and variations including those that come into play at different times and places. These include both giving to the poor and lending.

You will remember from the book of Ruth that one element has the poor person gleaning from the leftovers in a field. If all one had to do was ask for a loan and then not repay it, why would anyone do that humbling and difficult work? There is a concept that gets poorly translated as slavery but whereby one indentures oneself or one’s children for up to six years labor, or is ordered to do so by the court. That is another idea that wouldn’t exist if all we legislated only by the verses you quote.

The system we follow to the best of our ability, is based on ancient Jewish wisdom, a combination of the written and oral transmission given to Moses on Mt. Sinai. The oral transmission deals with exactly the type of question you ask—how do we implement and correctly understand verses that only tell part of a story, verses that contradict each other and verses that, if blindly followed, would have us sometimes doing precisely the wrong things.

To conclude, the Shmitah year with its forgiveness of some types of debts is one part of a grand and complex picture. Societies that simply encourage lack of responsibility and free-loading will not survive.

May your work prosper,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

12 thoughts on “Loans with no payback? The Shemitah Year”

  1. Pamela Balistreri

    I am in full agreement with God’s word on loans But what is not addressed so much is true charity. I very much believe that we are to look out for the widows and the very sick as well. I am not nor have ever been anything but very conservative. If the family of a widow is not looking out for her in any way at all(,and by this refer to leaves on the roof and general hard out door chores ( please ladies be gentle with me on this Bc yes I can haul.s wheelbarrow to garden but cannot go up on a 2 story roof!).can we not have compassion and help.with these things?? Or drop off meals Bc one realizes that she isn’t eating?? Is not this doing God’s work vs being a hand out? There are instances that we can and should make a difference with our time talent and treasure. I believe that God knows the heart better than anyone and can understand our intentions best. Ok. That said.. please correct me if I am wrong on.eithet account. Was not Israel judged and put into captivity for 70yrs ( Babylonian) because they both ignored God’s word and failed to keep the Shmeta?? I am open to learning and correction on that issue. Thank you for your reading this less than pithy post. I really Do want to learn. God bless

    1. Hi Pamela. We were only responding to the question on those specific verses dealing with loans. There are many, many verses dealing with charity and helping each other out in ways that are not charity but goodness.

  2. Perhaps an apt illustration of society’s detriment through defaulting payment is the crisis of defaulted student loans. It was a wrench and a hardship, but I repaid every penny. But many of the ‘entitlement’ crowd seem to expect to ‘get over’ on the government as a matter of principle.

    The saddest cases are those Peter Pans who never seem to learn that money is a spiritual commodity earned by service to God’s children. They receive a paycheck and it’s gone in the twinkling of an eye, oft squandered before the check is deposited. They remain perpetually indigent through their own imprudent decisions and choices. Perhaps I should be more forgiving, but I find it hard to contribute charity to such people, and feel that the government is also not responsible to them, and should not enable them.

    1. James, I’m sure you know of the wonderful letter written by Abraham Lincoln to his step-brother, turning down a request for a loan. The letter is beautiful and begins, “Your request for eighty dollars I do not think it best to comply with now. At the various times when I have helped you a little you have said to me, “We can get along very well now”; but in a very short time I find you in the same difficulty again. Now, this can only happen by some defect in your conduct. What that defect is, I think I know. You are not lazy, and still you are an idler. I doubt whether, since I saw you, you have done a good whole day’s work in any one day. You do not very much dislike to work, and still you do not work much merely because it does not seem to you that you could get much for it. This habit of uselessly wasting time is the whole difficulty; it is vastly important to you, and still more so to your children, that you should break the habit. It is more important to them, because they have longer to live, and can keep out of an idle habit before they are in it, easier than they can get out after they are in.”
      The rest of the letter should be widely read as well.

  3. As I try to adhere to biblical principles regarding the “certificates of appreciation” I earn, I find it very Sad, and to some extent amazing, the differences in attitudes toward money that are prevalent in our society today.
    I was taught that there is a stigma attached to receiving welfare, food stamps or other relief, and that unless there were dire circumstances, it was to be temporary relief and one should do his or her best to work their way out of the situation. I do not see this type of thinking among most recipients of the dole that I encounter. Most seem to view the generosity of the US taxpayers as their “benefit” or reward for merely existing in God’s creation. No gratitude, no shame, and many times No Effort to try to repay the system or to even get away from the system. Worse yet, some even seem to show pride and arrogance that they are “smart enough” to “work” the system. It is not only individuals, but some corporations that “take advantage of the laws” (referring to bankruptcy) and skate the repayment of goods, services and labor.
    Meanwhile, my soul is in check with my money and my effort. Living, working and spending below our means has “benefits” (peace, joy and the ability to experience true love), and rather than dwell on the above listed peeves, we rely on God’s providence and serve with gratitude.
    Thank You Rabbi, from us Christians who need a Rabbi.

    1. Darin, the attitude you are expressing reflects the tremendous harm done to a country as a whole, but more importantly to the souls of individuals, when accepting charity and other aid from fellow citizens became known as ‘entitlements.’ It’s a serious question if the United States can get back on a more moral path.

  4. Rabbi Lapin,
    This interests me. And I am slow of understanding your response, please, tell me where I should study to comprehend.

  5. Thank you Rabbi

    I (personally) don’t see any “controversy” or “contradiction” in the scriptures – especially when taken in the entirety.

    We are to help those who can’t do for themselves, those who can do should glean (work)

    Those who live beyond their means can obtain a loan, to be paid back within 7 years. If it can’t be paid back in 7 years, then the lender is the one who made the ‘bad’ deal and anything after the 7th year is forgiven.

    The Bible tells us EVERYTHING we need to know about living.

    Unfortunately, for the last 100 years, those of us in these United States are too ignorant of God’s word to be able to live accordingly

    1. Ms. Boswell, are you serious?
      If you borrow money and decide you don’t want to pay it back, it is the lender’s fault for trusting and believing you? It is the lender’s bad decision ? So the lender, who trusted he’ll get his money back, is the loser ? Interestingly enough, those “borrowers”, better word is THIEVES, never prosper.

    2. Sorry, Karen, but we don’t agree with everything you say. When a loan isn’t paid back because of the Shmitah year, it is not at all seen as the fault of the lender. That is why God exhorts us not to hold back from helping each other when the Shmitah year is approaching and there is limited time for the person to get their act together and accrue the funds to pay back the loan. In effect, God is acting as guarantor that even when it looks like it was a bad loan, He is in charge and will pay us back. As we said, the Shmitah system is above nature and can only function when God is acknowledged to be running the world.

  6. My book says if one does not work , they do not eat. I am 8l and have retired 4 times. I prepare and keep a budget. I do volunteer work in churches and am GP Chaplain. I figure my Father has a missions for me and when finished will be called home.

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