Yeshua and the Prozbul

Last night I was reading to my children from the Gospel of Matthew a few mishnayyot of Yeshua in order to get across the point of how to deal with a person who is acting poorly (such as demanding, hitting, or wanting something you have). I read to them Matthew 5:39-42, after which we had a question and answer session (with M&M rewards!) and a role-play session to work on putting these principles into practice. In my reading to them, however, I stumbled across something for which I had had a hunch for the last few years, but was not sure I could back it. Fittingly, it corresponds to this week’s parasha.

Our parasha (Re’eh) states the following:

At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel the loan he has made to his fellow Israelite. He shall not require payment from his fellow Israelite or brother, because the LORD’s time for canceling debts has been proclaimed. You may require payment from a foreigner, but you must cancel any debt your brother owes you. However, there should be no poor among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the LORD your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today. For the LORD your God will bless you as he has promised, and you will lend to many nations but will borrow from none. You will rule over many nations but none will rule over you.

If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs. Be careful not to harbor this wicked thought: “The seventh year, the year for canceling debts, is near,” so that you do not show ill will toward your needy brother and give him nothing. He may then appeal to the LORD against you, and you will be found guilty of sin. Give generously to him and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land
(Deuteronomy 15:1-11, NIV)

In the days of Hillel, there came a situation in which the shmitah (the Sabbatical Year) became a burden to the people and because of not being able to collect a debt loaned out in the later years, which were close to the shmitah. The creditors, falling into the temptation for which they were warned against in our passage, became unwilling to make loans in these years. Hillel, citing a rabbinic argument (later recorded in Messechet Gittin 36a) in which the observance of the shmitah is said only be valid via a strict set of parameters [see footnote], instituted what is called the prozbul. The prozbul stated that the shmitah did not truly exist at that time and therefore the debts owed to creditors could be maintained through a special formulation. He therefore decreed through a beit din that creditors could have their debts given over to the local beit din during the shmitah, after which they could collect the entire debt. Hillel, in his moment of unrestrained compassion, effectively nullified the shmitah until the return of Mashiach.

I have always had a hunch that Yeshua would have taken issue with this. Although he and Hillel agree on nearly all matters of halachah (except, for example, on the issue of divorce), Yeshua was definitely concerned with the heart of the people more than the results of contrived legislation. And although he didn’t address it directly, he did allude to this issue in Matthew’s account of his teachings. Yeshua says,

Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.
(Matthew 5:42, NASB)

In this passage, we see Yeshua directly addressing the issue of the shmitah problem and telling people that they should allow others to borrow from them without fear of repayment (since all belongs to Hashem anyway!). With Hillel living one generation prior to and overlapping Yeshua’s generation, the prozbul was already in place. Why, therefore, would Yeshua have the need to address the issue of lending if the prozbul had already given people reason to loan freely? It was not because of the reluctance of the creditors to loan. It was because Yeshua was making a remez on our parasha to remind his listeners that they are to loan “openhanded and freely” to lend to their brother “whatever he needs.” They were to make the connection in light of the prozbul enactment and go beyond their yetzer hara and loan to their brother even when they knew they would not be repaid. This is indeed the spirit of Yeshua’s reiteration of Torah to remind us that when we abide by commandments we will be provided for as it says, “for the man who obeys them will live by them” (Leviticus 18:5).

[FOOTNOTE] The shmitah is said to only be valid when all of the Jews are living in Eretz Israel, and was only applicable as a rabbinic decree during the days of Hillel (since all Jews were not living in The Land), thus able to be overturned via a rabbinic decree. This itself is based on the rabbinic concept that the Yovel—Year of Jubilee—is only applicable when all Jews are living within The Land.

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