Parsha and Manuscript: Mishpatim: 'If you lend money to My people'

Friday, 17 March, 2023 - 1:29 pm

It states in Exodus 22:24: ‘If (im) you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, do not act toward them as a creditor; exact no interest from them.’ In Mechilta d’Rabbi Yishmael (Mishpatim, ch. 19), it clarifies that the interpretation of this verse is that it is not optional, but there is an obligation to lend money to the poor:


R. Yishmael said: wherever ‘im’ occurs in Scripture it is used of an act the performance of which is optional, except in three instances, of which this is one. Other cases include Exodus 20:22: ‘And if (when) you make for Me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stones,’ and Leviticus 2:14: ‘And if (when) thou offerest the meal-offering of first-fruits.’[1]


The proof that ‘im’ (if) in this case means ‘when,’ and that is obligatory, is from Deuteronomy 15:7-8, where it states the obligation to lend:


If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kin in any of your settlements in the land that your G-d is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kin. Rather, you must open your hand and lend whatever is sufficient to meet the need.


The view that there is an obligation to lend to the poor is codified in all the major works of Jewish law: Sefer Mitzvot Katan (248:2), Sefer Hamitzvot Gadol (positive commandment 93), and Maimonides’ Sefer Hamitzvot (positive commandment 197), and Mishneh Torah, Laws of lending and borrowing (ch. 7), where it states: ‘It is a positive commandment to lend money to the poor among Israel, as Exodus 23:24 states: "If you will lend money to My nation, to the poor among you." Lest one think that this is a matter left to the person's choice, it is also stated Deuteronomy 15:8: "You shall certainly loan to him."’ The virtue of lending a loan to one in need is reflected also in Psalms (112:5): ‘All goes well with the man who lends generously, who conducts his affairs with equity.’ Similarly, the Talmud (Yevamot 63a) states: one who lends a sela to a pauper at his time of need, about him the verse states: “Then shall you call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and He will say: Here I am” (Isaiah 58:9).




Rashi, in his commentary on Exodus 22:24, also cites the view of R. Yishmael:


If thou lend money to any of my people: R. Yishmael said: wherever ‘im’ occurs in Scripture it is used of an act the performance of which is optional, except in three instances, of which this is one.

In the manuscripts of Rashi, there are, however, three versions of this comment:


1. In Leipzig MS 1, CCCMS165, MS. Oppenheim 34 (1201-25), MS. Canon. Or. 81 (1396), MS. Canonici Or. 35 (1401-25), MS. Oppenheim 35 (1408), it omits: ‘to my people’ (et ha-ani) in the citation of the verse. In MS. Oppenheim Add. 4° 188 (1301-1400) and MS. Michael 384 (1399), it, however, includes it, as found in the printed version.


2. In ItalianMS. Michael 384 (1399) and MS. Oppenheim Add. 4° 188 (1301-1400), it omits the name: R. Yishmael.


3. In MS. Oppenheim 34 (1201-25), it adds in the margin: ‘And according to the plain meaning of the text (p’shat), if you have money, you shall lend to any of my people, as an obligation.’


What is the reason for these variants? While there is no dispute about the fact there is an obligation to lend in Jewish law, there are two ways to understand Exodus 22:24: ‘If (im) you lend money to My people.’ 1. ‘im’ means ‘when’ and is obligatory. 2. ‘im’ in this case means ‘if’ – optional, even though it is not disputing the fact that in principle there is an obligation to lend. Following the former (obligatory), the verse may be read in the following five ways:


Im’ – ‘when’


a. In Exodus Rabba (31:6), it interprets the verse: when one has lent money to the poor, do not press him. This is also how it is phrased in Sefer Mitzvot Gadol, negative commandment 185. Similarly, R. Judah Loewe explains this as the simplest meaning of the text. It is not to inform the obligation to lend in itself, but rather ‘when’ one performs the mitzvah of lending in the way that G-d commanded, they should not press the borrower for repayment.


b. In Exodus Rabba (31:17), it reads the verse: ‘when’ you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, without taking interest, then you will be with Me (G-d). Thus, instead of reading: ‘ami’ (my people), one should read: ‘imi’ (with Me), indicating that one is ‘with G-d’ by lending to the poor without interest.


c. In Midrash Tanchuma, cited by Hadar Zekeinim, it interprets the verse: ‘when’ one lends to the poor, one is ‘in G-d’s midst.’[2]


d. In Exodus Rabba (31:13), it interprets the verse as suggesting the poor who require a loan are close to G-d. Instead of reading, ‘ami’ (my people), one should read ‘imi’ (with Me), indicating that G-d cleaves to the poor.


e. R. Ephraim Lunshitz explains that the verse is informing two reasons one should lend to the poor: a. the poor person is amongst ‘My people’ and it is therefore as if one is lending to G-d, who is guaranteed to repay. b. the phrase ‘to the poor among you’ informs that the poor gives merit to the lender, more than the lender gives to the borrower.


Im’ – ‘if’


A second interpretation is to read ‘im’ as: ‘if,’ reflecting a qualification or condition to the obligation to lend: there are circumstances when one may not be obligated to lend, even though lending, when applicable, is an obligation. This may be understood in the following ten ways:




 ben Isaac Messer Leon (1166–1224), and R. Yehudah Chasid, cited by R. Asher ben Yechiel, known as the Rosh (1250-1327), and R. Isaac ben Asher HaLevi, known as Riva (11-12th century), respectively, explain the obligation refers to a trustworthy borrower, to whom one is obligated to lend, but one is noty obligated to lend to an untrustworthy borrower. This is codified in Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat (97:4): ‘in a case where the borrower is known to be a person who spends the borrowed money unnecessarily or loses the money, it is better not to lend to such a person.’[3]


Can afford


b. Ibn Ezra explains the verse: If the L-rd gave you enough wealth so that you are able to lend to the poor, thou shalt not be to him as a creditor, in that he favours you because of your kindness. R. Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser, known as Malbim (1809-1879), similarly, explains that the phrase ‘if’ is merely to say that it is only if one has money, and the poor person needs a loan, then one is obligated to lend. If one cannot afford to lend, there is no such obligation.




c. Sforno interprets the verse relating to the borrower: if this is an Israelite on whom the promise that “there will not be a destitute person among you” has not been fulfilled. (Deuteronomy 15:4), and instead the individual in need of a loan is the one who became subject to another promise (threat) written in the Torah in Deuteronomy 15,11: “there will never be a total absence of destitute people, etc.” - when such a situation arises, the victim will require a loan. Similarly, according to R. Shimon Bar Yochai in Berachot 35b,if one dedicates oneself exclusively to Torah, their work is performed by others, as it is stated: “And strangers will stand and feed your flocks, and foreigners will be your plowmen and your vinedressers” (Isaiah 61:5). In such case, there will be no need for loans. Following this view, the need for a loan is when one is not performing G-d’s will, thus diminishing the obligation to lend, reflected in the conditional phrase ‘if.’  


Preserve wealth by lending without interest


d. In Exodus Rabba (31:11), it suggests that the focus of the verse is on the second half of the verse concerning the prohibition: ‘exact no interest from them.’ In this context, it is saying: If you want to preserve your money ‘with you’ (imach) - while you lend money, then ‘exact no interest from them.’




e. R. Joshua HaCohen Falk (1555 - 1614), in his commentary, Me'irat Einayim, to the Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 97:1, interprets the verse: when one lends, one should prioritise a Jew over a non-Jew, even if the Jew is not paying interest and the non-Jew is. R. Elijah Mizrachi (1455-1525), also argues that the purpose of the verse is to inform the negative: when you lend money, it should be to My people, and not to a non-Jew. The Talmud in tractate Bava Metzia (71a) states:


There are who teach that which Rav Huna that which Rav Yosef taught: “If you lend money to any of My people, even to the poor person who is with you” (Exodus 22:24). The term “My people” teaches that if one of My people, i.e., a Jew, and a gentile both come to borrow money from you, My people take precedence. The term “the poor person” teaches that if a poor person and a rich person come to borrow money, the poor person takes precedence. And from the term: “Who is with you,” it is derived: If your poor person, meaning one of your relatives, and one of the poor of your city come to borrow money, your poor person takes precedence. If it is between one of the poor of your city and one of the poor of another city, the one of the poor of your city takes precedence.


This suggests a case where there is the option to give a loan to a Jew or a non-Jew and the obligation is to give the loan to the Jew and not the non-Jew. This justified the phrase ‘if:’ if a Jew and non-Jew approach you for a loan, one should prioritise the Jew.


Silver and not gold – still obligated to lend


f. R. Moses Alshich (1508-159) On Exodus 22:24:1 suggests the verse is stating that if one only has silver and not gold, one should not refrain from lending until one has gold, but rather one should lend with the silver one has.


Money – forbidden to press for money, may press for items


g. R. Yisrael Meir Kagan (1838-1933), known as the Chafetz Chaim, in his work Ahavat chessed (1:1) interprets the verse as stating that if one lends money (not other items), one may not oppress the borrower for repayment if it has already been spent and he has no money to repay. If one, however, lends an item or vessel, one is permitted to pressure the borrower for repayment.


Money belongs to borrower if one has excess


h. Or HaChaim on Exodus 22:24:2 explains the reason for the optional language, despite it being an obligation to lend, is to inform the idea that ‘if you become aware that you have more money than you need for your personal requirements it is clear that the excess had originally belonged to someone else, i.e. "the poor amongst you." This is a clear hint that you should open your hand to lend to the poor part of what used to be his, or had been intended for him.’


Free choice


i. R. Judah Loewe says that the verse expresses the odea that one should perform a mitzvah not in a way that one is forced to do so by the command of G-d, but rather by one’s own volition. For this reason, it states: ‘if one lends.’


Lending is inferior to gift


j. While Jewish law states lending is superior to a charitable gift, since the person is not put to shame by accepting gifts,[4] R. Isaac Arama, in Akeidat Yitzchak (69:1:7) and Abrabanel argues that the verse informs: If you do not do your duty and give to your fellow Jew, but you merely loan him, then at least you must not charge interest. Else, you would be treating him like a gentile.




The above ten interpretations indicate a condition to the giving of a loan, thus justifying the phrase ‘if.’ Based on the above two approaches, whether the verse aimes to limit the circumstances and conditions of the obligation to give a loan, or to positively obligate lending a loan and the related virtue and ethical requirements, we may explain the variants in the manuscripts.


To My people


The inclusion of: ‘to My people’ in the citation of the verse in Rashi’s comment aims to negate the interpretation of R. Joshua HaCohen Falk (1555 - 1614) and R. Elijah Mizrachi (1455-1525), justifying the phrase ‘im’ (if) in the verse. Had it not stated ‘to my people’ in the citation of the verse, one may have read the verse as referring to a case when one has the option to lend to a Jew or a non-Jew, in which case, one should give priority to ‘My people.’ By including: ‘to My people’ it clarifies that the verse is talking exclusively about a case when only a Jew is requesting a loan, without an alternative option. This, then, is consistent with the interpretation of R. Yishmael that ‘im’ (if) implies in this case ‘when,’ i.e. obligation.[5]


Conversely, the omission of the words: ‘to any of my people’ alludes to the interpretation of R. Joshua HaCohen Falk and R. Elijah Mizrachi (1455-1525).


R. Yishmael


Similarly, the inclusion of the name R. Yishmael – the author of the view that ‘im’ in this case means ‘when,’ i.e. an unconditional obligation to lend, emphasises further the interpretation of the verse that there is an obligation to lend, and one should not consider otherwise. This alludes to the view of the same R. Yishmael found in the Talmud (Berachot 35b) that, contrary to the view of R. Ovadia Sforno (1475-1550) mentioned above, it is not due to a sin that one may require a loan, justifying the obligation to lend to him. The Talmud states:


The Sages taught: What is the meaning of that which the verse states: “And you shall gather your grain”? Because it is stated: “This Torah shall not depart from your mouths,” (Joshua 1:8), I might have thought that these matters are to be understood as they are written; one is to literally spend his days immersed exclusively in Torah study. Therefore, the verse states: “And you shall gather your grain, your wine and your oil,” assume in their regard, the way of the world; set aside time not only for Torah, but also for work. This is the statement of Rabbi Yishmael. Rabbi Shimon ben Yoḥai says: Is it possible that a person plows in the plowing season and sows in the sowing season and harvests in the harvest season and threshes in the threshing season and winnows in the windy season, as grain is separated from the chaff by means of the wind, and is constantly busy; what will become of Torah? Rather, one must dedicate himself exclusively to Torah at the expense of other endeavors; as when Israel performs God’s will, their work is performed by others, as it is stated: “And strangers will stand and feed your flocks, and foreigners will be your plowmen and your vinedressers” (Isaiah 61:5). When Israel does not perform God’s will, their work is performed by them themselves, as it is stated: “And you shall gather your grain.” Moreover, if Israel fails to perform G-d’s will, others’ work will be performed by them, as it is stated: “You shall serve your enemy whom G-d shall send against you, in hunger, in thirst, in nakedness and in want of all things” (Deuteronomy 28:48).


The view of R. Yishmael is that one must combine learning Torah with working for a living, for this is the way of the natural world and one should exclusively study Torah and rely on G-d to provide. Thus, if one requires a loan, it is not due to neglect of Torah study. It is therefore obligatory to help such a person. The addition of the name R. Yishmael in the commentary of Rashi, thus, reinforces this obligation.


Marginal note


Finally, the additional comment in the margin, stating the plain meaning of the text: ‘if you have money, you shall lend to My people, i.e. an obligation,’ translating the word ‘im’ – ‘if,’ follows the interpretation of Ibn Ezra, and the Malbim. The omission of this marginal note, aims to negate this interpretation, suggesting that in the view of Rashi, the interpretation of R. Yishmael, translating ‘im’ as ‘when’ – i.e. an unconditional obligation to lend, should not be seen as midrashic, but also the plain meaning of the text.





[1] Two further cases that are not part of the three cited by R. Yishmael, but are nevertheless obligatory, include: a. Numbers 36:4: ‘And even if (when) the Israelites observe the jubilee, their share will be added to that of the tribe into which they become [wives], and their share will be cut off from the ancestral portion of our tribe,’ and b. Exodus 21:30: ‘If ransom is imposed, the owner must pay whatever is imposed to redeem the owner’s own life.’

[2] See Sefer hamamarim, Parshat Mishpatim 5727, by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, R. Menachem M. Schneerson, citing R. Shmuel of Lubavitch, known as Maharash, in a discourse from 1867.

[3] Rashi on Shavuot 39a writes that one is sinful and liable for an oath in vain if one lends money to a person who is untrustworthy.

[4] Ahavath Chesed 1:1.

[5] Likkutei Sichot 11, p. 103.


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