Tag Archives: Interest-Free Loans

Nazirites, Levites, and Agriculture (N#194-230)

Read the full text here.

The most famous Nazirite was undoubtedly Samson, depicted here wrestling a lion.

Summary: Mitzvah #194 is not to consume yayin nesech, wine that was used or created for idolatrous purposes. The following mitzvah is not to be a glutton. The next four are not to eat on Yom Kippur, and not to eat chametz or something that has chametz in it on Pesach or the afternoon before Pesach. This is followed by the prohibitions of having any chametz be seen or found in one’s possession on Pesach. The next four are for a Nazirite not to consume any grapes or grape-related products, then two for a Nazirite not to become impure through proximity to a corpse, and for a Nazirite not to shave or get a haircut. Mitzvah #210 is not to harvest one’s entire field (but rather to leave a corner, pe’ah, to be freely consumed by the poor and disadvantaged). Similarly, #211 is not to gather fallen produce (leket), but leave them for the needy, and #213 is specifically not to gather fallen grapes. Mitzvah #212 is not to harvest undeveloped grape clusters, and #214 is not to gather in forgotten sheaves (but leave them for the needy as well). The next three prohibitions all deal with kilayim, crossbreeding different species. Mitzvah #218 is not to work two different animals together under one yoke, and #219 is not to muzzle an animal while it is working, but allow it to eat of the fields it is working on. The next four mitzvot all prohibit working the land in various ways in the Sabbatical shemitah year, followed by two similar ones for the Jubilee year. Mitzvah #227 is not to sell lands in Israel permanently, since plots of land must be returned to their original owners every Jubilee. Unlike the other tribes, the Levites were not given specific borders within Israel. They were only given specific cities, and mitzvah #228 is not to change the status of these cities or take them away from the Levites. This is followed by a prohibition of forsaking or abandoning Levites. The Jewish people are required to take care of the priestly class. Finally, there are three mitzvot dealing with lending money to a fellow Jew, including not seeking repayment after a shemitah.

Insight: Although true idolatry is uncommon and rare today, the default status of any wine produced by gentiles is still yayin nesech. In the full version of Sefer HaMitzvot, the Rambam notes that the Torah forbid specifically wine that was used in idolatry, but when it comes to all gentile wines – whether used in idolatry or not – these were prohibited by rabbinic decree. In fact, they were among the 18 laws instituted by Beit Shammai back in the first century CE, in that infamous incident of when Beit Shammai forcibly took the majority in the Sanhedrin and pushed their stringencies through! (See Shabbat 17b, for instance.) To avoid the prohibition of yayin nesech, wine can be “boiled”, mevushal. By flash-boiling it, the yayin mevushal becomes permissible. Most kosher wines on the market today are mevushal. However, more and more wines made in Israel and in Jewish-owned wineries around the world are non-mevushal. Some believe that the flash-boiling process affects the flavour and quality of the wine, and prefer consuming only non-mevushal wine.

Further Reading: ‘The Science of Chametz’

Acts of Kindness (P#194-211)

Read the full text here. 

Summary: The list of positive mitzvot continues with a number of commands of chessed, acts of kindness. First is to return stolen objects to their owners (#194), and relatedly there is a mitzvah to return lost objects (#204). Then is the mitzvah to give to charity (195), and for a master who has freed his slave or maid to present them with gifts on their way out of servitude (196). The next mitzvah is to lend money to the Jewish poor, interest-free. This is followed by a controversy: When it comes to lending to gentiles, interest is charged. It must be noted that not all hold this to be a Torah mitzvah. The great Ra’avad (Rabbi Avraham ben David, 1125-1198), for instance, disputed this and did not consider it one of the 613 commandments. Mitzvah #199 is to return the collateral or security deposit of a poor person if they need that item. For example, if it is their “night garment” which they need to sleep, it should be returned before their bedtime, and then it can be taken again in the morning. The next mitzvah is to pay a hired worker on time, and the one that follows is to allow a hired farmhand to consume of the produce he is harvesting or assisting with. Mitzvot #202 and 203 are to help a fellow unload a burden off of his animal, and also to help him load a burden onto his animal. (The Ra’avad did not consider these distinct mitzvot!) There are three more important mitzvot bein adam l’havero: to rebuke a fellow who is sinning, to love your fellow, and to love a person who converted to Judaism. Mitzvah #208 is to ensure one has correct weights on their balance (and is honest in sales and business). To honour the elderly and the wise (and rise before them), as well as to honour one’s father and mother, and to revere them, are the next three mitzvot.

The Jeanette Levine Bridal Gemach in Florida

Insight: One of the wonderful institutions that Jewish communities always made sure to have is a gemach, a contraction of gemilut chassadim, “acts of kindness”. This is an interest-free loan fund from which Jews in need can receive a certain portion of money to help them in hard times. The funds are collected from donations within the Jewish community, and someone is put in charge of distributing these funds as necessary, and collecting repayment, too. Today, there are still Jewish free-loan societies in Jewish communities around the world. In America, the first official such group was the Hebrew Free Loan Society of New York, established in 1892 when 11 Jewish friends raised a total of just $95 to start the fund. They gave out money in $5 and $10 increments. Over the years, that fund has grown substantially and is now distributing millions of dollars to help countless people in need. Today, one can also find other forms of gemach that are not necessarily financial. For instance, there are gemachs that lend wedding dresses, or even gemachs that lend baby supplies! These are yet another excellent example of Jewish unity and support that has allowed Jewish communities to survive and flourish through the toughest of times.