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Shemitat Kesafim: Loan Remission as the Climax of the Shemitah Year

Shemitat Kesafim: Loan Remission as the Climax of the Shemitah Year

The shemitah year as an internal processes of rehabilitation in self-perception.

Rabbi Yitzhak Dvir, Elul 5782


The canceling of debts (shemitat kesafim) at the end of the shemitah year appears to be distinct from the annulment of land ownership (shemitat karka’ot) and other laws which accompanied us over the past year. Its independent mention in Parshat Re'eh strengthens the notion that the canceling of debts is similar to the freeing of slaves, which is not directly connected to shemitah. However, the verse (Devarim 15:2) that begins the discussion of shemitat kesafim would appear to disagree: “And this is the manner of the release: every creditor shall release that which he has lent to his neighbor...”

The Sages inferred two forms of emancipation, one of land and the other of money, based on the double mention of “release” in the verse.[1] According to the simple understanding, the words “And this is the manner of the release…” refer to the annulment of land ownership, which thereby implies that the Torah proclaims release of land to constitute the essence of the shemitah year.[2]

The meaning of “manner of the release” can be interpreted as the reason for the release (similar to Devarim 23:5), or as a pronouncement regarding its ultimate purpose and nature (similar to Zechariah 4:6).[3]

We should also note the use of the word “And this is” (vezeh), unique to the words of Moshe, in contrast to the more commonly used “thus”(koh) of all other prophets. It is as if to say that at the end of the shemitah year, there is complete clarity regarding the essence of the shemitah.

In the following lines we will attempt to understand why shemitat kesafim is the climax of the shemitah year, and if so, why does it take place at the end of it instead of the beginning. We will assume that throughout the shemitah year there are developing processes that reach their completion at the end. 

1. Annulment and Liberation

The goal of the shemitah year was expressed by the Sages in the following manner: “What is the reason for shemitah?...So they should know that the land belongs to Me [G-d].”[4] The understanding that the land belongs to G-d, with the fruits growing upon it His as well, is a serious challenge founded upon solid foundations. The land was formed by the Creator, and therefore it is easily related to Him. Ownership over the produce is also well aligned with the natural feeling that their growth is dependent on assistance from Heaven, as an unending dependency on weather and nature. Therefore, it is easy to connect with the message that the land and its produce are from G-d, from Whose table we eat.

It is more complex to reach the same insight when it comes to money, since Man naturally feels that he acquired his money through the merit of his industry, achievements, and talents. Rav Shaul Yisraeli writes similarly (in Shemitah through the Generations):

"Imagine that a person puts in effort to acquire a certain sum of money. The Torah already commanded against deception and fraud, withholding wages, and other acts of financial impropriety. The Torah obligates one to deal honestly in business in addition to keeping one’s word, so the money one ultimately manages to obtain is everything one righteously merited." 

To reach the point in which one “knows that property and money belong to Me [G-d]” requires lengthy preparation and spiritual maturity, which will ultimately lead a person to annul the debts owed to him. This annulment isn't “given” in the sense of charity. Rather, they are abandoned in the hands of the borrower, with the knowledge that the funds were never really the lender’s. So if the money reaches the borrower at this point in time, it is a sign that they are meant to remain in his hands.[5]

2. Giving and Concession

The shemitah years trains us to be more giving.[6] Commanded ownerlessness, which prohibits an owner to take all the produce of a field, creates self-interest for the owner that others should take what is left to avoid futile rotting.[7] However, it is naturally easier to give charity and support those with worse life outcomes, to give them bread or grant support, than it is to give up on an owed debt. A person who does not repay a debt is criticized, since it reflects a lack of responsibility. This critique is essentially correct, as the verse says “the wicked borrow and do not pay” (Tehillim 37:21). 

The concession to the borrower regarding the debt originates in a deep faith that even the borrower’s ability to repay, his mistaken economic choices, characteristics, and talents are also from G-d. We are speaking of walking the fine line between faith and personal effort; because the expectation from the borrower is clearly that he does everything possible to repay, as the Sages viewed the repayment of debts after shemitat kesafim as praiseworthy. However, shemitat kesafim is involved with the point of a deeper truth,[8] a point which requires a lengthy process to connect with, in the form of a full year of giving and generosity.[9] 

3. Liberation to Freedom

Shemitah develops personal freedom, saves one from drowning in the travails of day to day life, from self-servitude, freeing up time for learning Torah, in the manner of “Cast your burden upon G-d and He will sustain you” (Tehillim 55:23). Monetary shemitah is involved in the same ideas, as “the borrower is servant to the lender” (Mishlei 22:7)—like the pardoning of slaves once every seven years.

 Rav Kook[10] explained why the Gemara places an emphasis on the exchange between the lender and borrower, where the lender says “I annul” with the borrower responding that he nonetheless wishes to repay the debt. Additionally, he analyzes why one who returns his debt on shemitah is particularly praised by the Sages. We should expect praise for the one who cancels the debts owed to him![11] As Rav Kook writes:

“The main essence of releasing debts during shemitah is due to the declaration of an annulment for G-d, and to remove the heaviest yoke that accrued for the wealthy over the poor due to the need for a loan at some point in time. Submission and subservience are carved in the heart of he who feels obligated to his friend, 'the borrower is servant to the lender' ... therefore it is enough for the essential foundation of shemitah to proclaim 'I annul,' since it is through this that the suffering and yoke of servitude is removed from borrower to lender.”

According to Rav Kook, the essence of shemitat kesafim is the removal of the status of the lender through his statement of “I annul.”[12] Therefore, the Sages understood that since subsequent to the removal of status, the borrower no longer feels subservient or forced to return the debt, if he initiates the return of his own volition, he is praiseworthy.

To ensure the removal of status, we need to certify that “I annul” is whole-heartedly said by the lender, and not for show. To accomplish this, the people need to be prepared for an entire year, through the self-release of the landowners who are to experience the meaning of liberation, in addition to their learning through releasing ownership and control over land and assets. This will enable them to free the debts of the borrower with a full heart.[13]

Ultimately, this is the simple meaning of the verse “the manner of the shemitah: every creditor shall release that which he has lent to his neighbor” (Devarim 15:2). The annulment of ownership and debt is the essence of shemitah, with the end result “and you shall rule over many nations, but they shall not rule over you” (Devarim 15:6).

4. The Cycle of Poverty

While shemitat kesafim clearly assists the weaker classes,[14] it does not operate in the same way as other gifts to the poor, as it attempts to leave a mark and change the current reality. Shemitat kesafim relates to one of the modern economy’s most intractable challenges—the cycle of poverty. Studies show that those born in poor families have a greater chance of living in poverty than those born in comfortable families. The outcome results from low quality education,[15] poor health, and transportation systems,[16] among other things. Rav Shaul Yisraeli (Shemitah through the Generations) writes in astonishment:

"How great is the power of the Torah, which succeeded through the mitzvot of shemitah and yovel to present a solution for the inequalities of society, between poor and rich, which all the scholars of economics have endlessly debated without success".

The cycle of poverty includes two levels. The first is the practical ability to escape the cycle, specifically when debts hang over the family and every paycheck received is required for covering payments. But no less important is the second level: that of their self-perception. Over the course of many years, those caught in the cycle create for themselves defeating patterns of thought that assert that they are incapable of supporting themselves, and that perhaps they are only good at collecting donations. Addressing one level without the other will result in the family inevitably returning to the cycle of poverty time and time again.

This is the reason the Torah did not establish shemitat kesafim at the beginning of shemitah. If the debts were forgiven without preparation, the poor would very quickly sink into new deficits. On this basis, an entire year of education and changing awareness is required. While the shemitah year is considered to be a year that benefits the poor, it is actually missing the elements from other years that strengthen the poor. There is no leket, shichecha, pe’ah, or ma'aser ani, and even ma'aser kesafim and charity shrink as salaries go down. Poor people cannot just wait at home for someone to give them food.

On the other hand, the poor are afforded an opportunity to honorably provide food for their families. The work of gathering from ownerless produce is far from simple. Advanced planning is necessary to provide a variety of foodstuffs based on knowledge of where produce is found, when each type of produce ripens, to arrive on time for harvesting, as well as transporting the food back home. Over the course of a year, the self-perception of the poor begins to change, since they are able to manage their household and experience success and self-efficacy. Only after this change in self-perception can we move to the decisive stage of canceling debts, thereby providing the financial tools to start afresh.[17]

We therefore find that in contrast to the care given to the poor during the course of six years, where the goal is to keep their heads above water and survive, the shemitah year is meant to leave a mark and allow every person to turn over a new leaf, begin a new life, and to change the face of society.[18] 

Translator: Ephraim Fruchter

For the Hebrew article


[1] Moed Kattan 2b.

[2] According to certain commentators, when the Gemara uses the phrase “shemitat karka,” it is referring to the Yovel year, while the phrase “shemitat kesafim” refers to the entire shemitah year. The decision to designate the shemitah using the term shemitat kesafim testifies to the centrality of this mitzvah.

[3] From the verse in Devarim (15:2) Rebbe learned that “when you release land, you release money” (Gittin 36a). This legal connection between the releases of land and money also testifies to the centrality of shemitat kesafim in the mitzvah of shemitah.

[4] Sanhedrin 39a.

[5] If the goal of shemitat kesafim is to educate the lender, it is understood why transferring the debt to the court (beit din) does not contradict the shemitah, since the lender has already annulled and released his debts and is not the one collecting them.

[6] Sefer HaChinuch Mitzvah 84.

[7] In addition to the simple affection Man has for the produce which leads him to desire avoiding rotting on the tree, rotting also leads to dirtiness, insects, and potential damage to the tree in the following year.

[8] Even the beginning of the shemitah year deals with the point of faith and personal effort, as reflected in the sentiment of the verse “And if you shall say: ‘What shall we eat the seventh year?” (Vayikra 25:20). Abandoning work in the fields contradicts the required behavior during all other years. The Torah is even concerned for the consequences of shemitat kesafim, warning: “Beware that there be not a base thought in your heart…” (Devarim 15:9) since a person might reason that this command cancels the requirement to repay loans, which discourages participation in the loan market.

[9] It is worthy of our attention that this generosity is demanded at the end of the shemitah year, at the stage when economic difficulties of an entire year have compounded.

[10] Ein Ayah Berachot II 10:9.

[11] For the sake of comparison, we don’t find that those who avoid harvesting in their fellow’s field during shemitah receive additional praise.

[12] There are those who understood the verse, “And this is the manner of the release” (Devarim 15:2) as defining the essence of shemitat kesafim through speech. 

[13] We can add that the shemitah year strengthens Jewish camaraderie, which eases the recognition of the need for another fellow’s freedom, and the pronouncement of “I annul” with a full heart. Rav Yehuda Amichay adds that it is easier to connect to the holiness of the Jewish nation after a full year of connection to holiness through the fruits of the land, which leads to the understanding that everyone deserves to be free. Rav Amichay adds that through shemitah Man realizes that he isn't a master. In releasing the land, he becomes aware that he isn't master over inanimate beings. Through the holiness of the fruit he isn't master over plants. And through shemitat kesafim he accepts that he isn't master over other people.

[14] Since debts are annulled at the end of the year, they also include loans taken by struggling farmers during the shemitah year itself (as explained by Bechor Shor and Chizkuni). Netziv explained the phrase “because the Lord’s release has been proclaimed” (Devarim 15:2) as encouraging the beit din to ensure that farmers who took loans aren’t forced to pay back their loans.

[15] According to Bank of Israel statistics, 90% of those whose parents have a degree will complete high school, while only 50% will do so if their parents only finished 8 years of schooling.

[16] According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, in Israel’s periphery, twice as many people are killed in car accidents due to poor infrastructure and those with poor finances will forego medical procedures three times as often.

[17] In this context we can add another reason for the end-of-year annulment. During shemitah, the borrower is released from daily worries, which allows for concerted focus on repaying debts. So if someone reached the end of the year and didn’t repay, we know for certain he would not be able to otherwise. 

[18] The Lubavitcher Rebbe (in his book Sha'arei Shemitah) writes about a parallel process in the spiritual realm, as every person’s life is itself a loan. “The store is open and the storekeeper allows credit, but the ledger is open and the hand writes, and whoever wishes to borrow may come and borrow” (Avot 3:16), the payment of the loan need be similar to the nature of the blessing. When G-d provides children, the payment is through educating them in the way of Torah and mitzvot, according to G-d’s will. When G-d provides a long, healthy, and complete life, it is important to remember that not a single day will needlessly pass. Every day must be full and crammed with content as per the Shulchan Aruch. When G-d blesses one with food, one must give ma'aser or a fifth to charity.” The Rebbe adds that in order for debts to be canceled, they cannot be transferred to a beit din, which requires one to act beyond the letter of the law, as a person is rewarded in the way they act. In a spiritual sense, shemitah is meant to provide the opportunity of new beginnings to one who is stuck with spiritual “debts.” Here, too, it only arrives after an entire year free from daily farm work and the possibility of returning the deficit, but there is also ultimately “debt” forgiveness.