Cancellation of Debts

The Cancellation of Debts at the Conclusion of Shevi’it

This year, 5775, is the Shemitta year, as we have discussed in the beginning of this year. There are therefore certain agricultural laws specific to the Land of Israel which apply during the Shemittayear.

Besides for the Mitzvah of not working the land and the sanctity which rests upon the fruits of this year (only regarding fruits grown on Jewish land in Israel which has not been sold to a non-Jew). Additionally, Hashem has commanded us about the cancellation of loans which applies this year. As opposed to the agricultural laws of Shevi’it which only apply in the Land of Israel, the Mitzvah of cancellation of loans during Shevi’it applies both in Israel and abroad. However, this Mitzvah is only observed on a rabbinic level nowadays both in Israel and abroad so that the laws of cancellation of debts by Shevi’it are not forgotten; however, it is no longer a Torah commandment since the entire Jewish nation does not reside in Israel and the Yovel (Jubilee year) is no longer observed.

מקץ שבע־שנים תעשה שמטה

The Torah states (Devarim 15): “At the end of every seven years shall you make a release. And this is the matter of the release: Every creditor shall release that which he has lent to his friend; he shall not exact it of his friend and of his brother because Hashem’s release has been proclaimed.” Our Sages explain that at the conclusion of the Shemitta year, all loans that one is owed by others are released. For instance, if Reuven loans Shimon money and Shimon is obligated to repay the loan before the conclusion of the Shemitta year, such as if the date for repayment was set for the 23rd of Elul 5775, and for whatever reason, Reuven did not claim his debt before the conclusion of theShemitta year, Reuven may no longer claim repayment of this debt from Shimon, for the conclusion of Shevi’it cancels all debts one is owed by others. If Reuven nevertheless claims repayment of the loan following the conclusion of the Shemitta year, he has transgressed the prohibition of “He shall not exact it of his friend and of his brother.”

Our Sages (Arachin 28b) derive that Shevi’it cancels loans only at its conclusion based on the verse “At the end of every seven years shall you make a release.” The Poskim as well as Maran Ha’Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat, Chapter 67, Section 30) rule likewise. Thus, even if one loans money to another within theShemitta year, one may collect this debt throughout the entireShemitta year; however, once the sun sets on the eve of Rosh Hashanah of the year following the Shemitta year, the debt is immediately cancelled unless the lender has written a Prozbul, the laws of which we shall explain in the following Halacha.

Shevi’it only cancels debts between a lender and a borrower. However, debts or balances incurred not in the setting of a loan, such as the balance one is obligated to pay in a grocery store at the end of a certain amount of time and the like or the amount of money one owes one’s ex-wife for her Ketubah in the event of divorce, are not cancelled by Shevi’it.

Similarly, if one borrows an electrical appliance and the like from a friend, since this is not considered a monetary loan, the borrower is certainly obligated to return the object even afterShevi’it has passed.

Nevertheless, any object lent in the manner of a debt is cancelled by Shevi’it. Thus, if a woman lends some bread or milk to a neighbor, which are things which are not commonly “lent” in the sense that the woman does not expect the neighbor to return those exact loaves of bread or cartons of milk, rather, she expects the neighbor to purchase new bread or milk and repay her with that, and then Shevi’it passes, the woman may not request repayment of these objects from the neighbor, for this retains the law of a debt which is cancelled at the end of the Shemitta year.

In the following Halachot, we shall, G-d-willing, discuss some of these laws further in addition to the essence of the Prozbulenacted by Hillel the Elder so that creditors would not lose their debts and thus abstain from lending money to the poor.