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Shemitat kesafim and social justice in the teachings of Rabbi Kook

Shemitat kesafim and social justice in the teachings of Rabbi Kook

Rabbi Azriel Ariel, in the Book "Machshevet Hashmitah", 5775

A deafening silence marks the attitude of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook on social justice issues. It is possible to discern in his writings the sympathy he felt for those passionate about social justice. However, a clear and explicit stance on the ideas of the Labor Movement is strikingly absent from his writings, despite the fact that this was one of the most burning issues of his generation. However, there was one mitzvah Rabbi Kook could not ignore: the mitzvah of shemitah, whose social implications are overwhelmingly blatant. Indeed, in his introduction to Shabbat Ha'aretz, Rabbi Kook describes an aura of social utopia resting upon the nation in the Land of Israel that year. This is true all the more so when it comes to shemitat kesafim, the mitzvah of loan remission.

Rabbi Kook writes about shemitat kesafim in Ein Aya.[1] There he explains the penultimate mishnah in tractate Shevi'it:[2] "One who returns a debt [after] the seventh year, the [lender] should say [to the borrower] "I remit it". But the [borrower] should say: "Even so [I will repay it]. [The lender] may then accept it from him, because it says: "And this is the word of the release [shemitah]."

Rabbi Kook writes as follows:

The main goal of the remission of debts in the seventh year is on account of "for the remission proclaimed is for G-d" [Devarim 15:2][3] – to remove the all-too-onerous burden of the rule of the rich over the poor; since once the [latter] depended on [the former] for a loan, submission and servitude will be etched upon the heart of one who feels himself indebted to his fellow: "and the borrower is a slave to the lender" [Mishlei 22:7].[4] This servitude may subjugate the honest ones before the aggressive wealthy, who are the lenders. For this reason, the shemitah comes to sever their shackles.

The moral corruption of a situation in which one person is indebted to his fellow does not stem from the economic gap between the two. That in itself is not a problem. The damage is inherent in the mental servitude stemming from financial subjugation. One of the educational lessons shemitah imparts to us is man's liberation from subjugation to his fellow man:

Along with the main foundation, to highlight that the foundation of assets is bound to the general supreme goal, which is the general good for all of G-d's creations.

But how will this correction come about? Is this dependent on the nullification of private property, thus transforming all of society into a commune? No, this is not the path:

Nevertheless, one should understand and recognize that it is not through the nullification of personal property that man reaches the lofty purpose of success for the whole, rather it is through the division of property coupled with caution from the adverse ramifications that come with this imaginary advantage.

In light of this view, there is a great danger latent in the idea of shemitat kesafim. On the one hand, the remission of loans is necessary to break man's evil inclination. On the other hand, there is a very fine line between the cancellation of debt and the cancellation of morality. This spiritual tension is manifested in the same halachah:

And behold, any straight path must be safeguarded so that it does not affect those following it with character traits that are evil when blown out of proportion. For this reason, the remission of the seventh year must be safeguarded, so as not to weaken the sense of honesty and justice preventing one from touching the possessions of his fellow. Thus, it is sufficient that the basis of the ultimate goal of the seventh year be in speech: "I remit it." As by this the load and yolk of slavery of the borrower to the lender is lifted.
However, in this place the Torah allowed the sense of honestly and purity to take its course. Since he of a pure soul –as befitting of a man of Israel, guided by the laws of G-d's Torah—will not desire to benefit from the labors of his fellow. Thus, when he says, "Even so," the lender should take it from him, to teach that the boundaries of the fundamentals of honesty should not move even temporarily; instead, they should be restricted in order to straighten out the general, loftier objective that will come following the call of remission for G-d, in both its material and spiritual aspects.

To complete this idea, we will quote the words of Rav Kook on the next mishnah: "One who repays his debts after the seventh year, the Sages are pleased with him."

Rabbi Kook writes as follows:

The objective of the cancellation of debt is not to prevent repayment and shift the weight in matters of property. The basis of Torah law is the restriction of possessions and upholding justice with regards to the personal property of each human being. However, the restriction of property should be influenced by a spirit of generosity, to the point that it negates the negative aspects accompanying it …

And then:

There will come also the advantage, that even without legal necessity—the man of spirit will abhor deriving benefit from the toil of others since he is aware of the advantage of his soul only when he assists and benefits others, but not when he is helped and tolerated. For this reason, One who repays his debts after the seventh year … the Sages are pleased with him."

In these lines, Rabbi Kook condenses his entire social ideology, which is different and more sophisticated than the social-communist world view. Respect for private property is a value. On the one hand, it is a value of justice, and a value of man's joy with his work, on the other hand. Heaven forbid that we attack these moral values by artificially constructing a commune. Rather, the genuine improvement of society comes with the personal moral improvement of each individual. Man, as an individual, must develop his moral personality: to be generous to those lower than him on the financial ladder and honest towards those on a higher rung than him. Thus a just and moral society will be built, permeated by justice, charity, and peace, which will be a light unto the nations and serve as an example to all peoples.

For the Hebrew article, see here.  


[1] Ein Ayah II, p. 404 – Peah 1,12-14.

[2] Mishnah Shevi'it 10:8.

[3] Translator's note: Rabbi Kook makes many biblical references without citing them in the body of his work. For clarity's sake, I attempted to provide references in brackets—Shoshan Raiz [SR].

[4] In the previous sentence, Rabbi Kook makes a reference to the beginning of this verse in Mishlei: "The rich rule over the poor" [SR].