According to biblical law, the land is to lie fallow every seventh year (Lev. 25:2); whatever grows on the land is designated as ownerless property, to which all enjoy equal rights with the owner. It is forbidden to trade with produce of this year, which, in its ownerless state, is also free of tithes. Another law which is to be practiced at the end of this seventh (shemittah) year involves the remissions of debts. Both these laws were part of an extensive program for preserving a balanced distribution of resources across society.

The law in Deut. 15:1-6 enjoins the remission of debts every seventh year. The type of debt that concerns the Torah is that incurred by the poor and insolvent.[1] A farmer, for example, might need funds, seed, or supplies because of crop failure; or a city dweller might become impoverished because of unemployment. Loans to individuals in such circumstances were acts of charity rather than commercial ventures, and the forgiving of such loans was an extension of the charity.

Some Mesopotamian kings proclaimed remissions of debt and release of debt servants, usually at the beginning of their reigns and, in some cases, again several years later. The act of remission was called misharim ("justice, equity") and the release of servants andurarum or durarum, related to Hebrew deror, "release," in Leviticus 25:10. Similar proclamations were made by rulers in the Greek and Hellenistic worlds. The most famous of these was the seisachtheia ("shaking off of burdens") in which Solon, in sixth-century Athens, "canceled all debts for which land or liberty was the security...and so released the peasants from serfdom, restored their farms, and redeemed those who had been sold into slavery." These practices rectified extreme and dangerous disparities between social classes and ingratiated the new ruler with certain elements of the public.

Practical details of how the law was applied such as the date on which the remission went into effect and the types of loans it covered are not spelled out. Some of these may have been common knowledge, and others may have been worked out by courts and administrative agencies. The Torah's aim here is primarily to state the principle that indebtedness is not to continue indefinitely, and to identify the authorized legal remedy for long-term debt.

In the verses before us we read: "Every seventh year you shall practice remission of debts," literally, "after a term of seven years"; according to the halakhah (Jewish religious law), debts were canceled at sunset on the last day of the seventh year.[2]

The Hebrew word for remission of debts, shemittah, literally means "dropping, release," from the verb sh-m-t. That it refers to debts is clear from the next verse. The word may also imply that the agricultural "sabbatical" (Exod. 23:10-11; Lev. 25:2-6) is to be observed in the same year, for that is the context in which sh-m-t is used in Exodus 23:10-11; there it is stated that fields, vineyards, and olive groves are to be "released" that is, left uncultivated in the seventh year.

Since the remission is for the benefit of the poor, it probably does not cover all types of debts. According to the halakhah, it does not cancel unpaid wages, bills owed to shopkeepers for merchandise, and certain types of secured loans. Similarly, in the misharum act of the Babylonian King Ammitsaduka, business loans are not canceled.

The remission applies only to debts owed by fellow Israelites, not those owed by foreigners. Similarly, the misharum edict of the Babylonian king Ammitsaduka canceled only the debts of Akkadians and Amorites in Babylon. The distinction between citizens and foreigners may be due to the fact that forgiving debts is an extraordinary sacrifice. Collecting debts is a legitimate right that members of society are willing to forgo only on behalf of those who have a special family-like claim on their generosity.

In practical terms, remission of debts aims to reestablish economic equilibrium within a society, and since foreigners are only temporary residents they are not members of that society. Indeed, since foreigners were normally present in a country for purposes of trade, goods or money given to them on credit were usually investments or advance payments on goods, not loans because of poverty.

The remission of debts and other provisions for the relief of debtors are part of the Torah's more extensive program for preserving a balanced distribution of resources across society.[3] In Moses' exhortation to obey this law of shemittah (v. 4-6), he suggests that if Israel obeys God's laws, not only will it have no poor who need loans, but it will be so prosperous that other nations will turn to it for loans.[4] This vision of economic utopian stands in strong contrast to the sad state of affairs described in Proverbs 22:7, in which "the rich dominate the poor, and the borrower is subservient to the lender."

[1] See Exodus 22:24; Lev. 25:36-37; Psalms 37:26; 112:5 [back]
[2] Maimonides, Hilkhot Shemittah ve-Yovel 9:4. [back]
[3] See Exodus 22:24-26; Leviticus 25:36-37; Deuteronomy 23:20-21 and 24:6,10-13,17. [back]
[4] Compare the blessing promised in Deut. 28:12 and the curse threatened in 28:44. [back]

SEVEN Table of Contents



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