Hilchos Choshen Mishpat
Volume IV : Number 5
Shemitah of Debts
What steps should one take so that Shevi'is (the seventh year of the
Shemitah cycle) does not cancel any debts that are owed to him, and why
was a "Pruzbul" instituted?
- There is a Mitzvah incumbent upon every Jew to nullify at the end of
the Shemitah year any debts owed to him ("Shemitas Kesafim"). There is
also a negative prohibition that is violated if someone requests payment
after Shemitah for loans initiated before the Shemitah year (1). This
prohibition includes debts that result from monetary loans as well as
debts that result from borrowing items that have been consumed, such as
food, where the understanding is that the borrower will return an item of
comparable quality and quantity (2).
- In our times, when the laws of Yovel [Jubilee] are not applicable,
according to most Halachic authorities the Mitzvah of Shemittas Kesafim
is Rabbinic. This Rabbinic Halacha that even when Yovel does not apply,
Shemitah still removes old debts, was instituted so that these laws would
not be forgotten from Israel. This Mitzvah applies in Israel and in the
Diaspora, since it is an obligation dependent on the person (Gavrah) and
not on the land (Adamah) (3).
- The removal of debts is effective at sunset of the 29th of Ellul of
the Shemitah year (the very end of the year). It is therefore permitted
for a lender to collect debts owed to him during the Shemitah year,
whether the loan was made before or during the Shemitah year (4).
- If a borrower approaches a lender after the Shemitah year and wishes
to repay his debt, the lender is obligated to say to him "I have removed
myself from this debt, and you are no longer obligated to pay it". If the
borrower says, "Even so, I wish to pay you!", the lender may take the
money. This is because it is clear that once they have had this little
conversation, the borrower is giving a gift to the lender, and not
repaying a loan that has already been absolved (5).
- Although it is impossible to obligate the borrower to repay the lender
after Shemitah, our Rabbis have said "One who returns a debt that
Shevi'is has absolved him from - the Rabbis are very pleased with him!"
- If the debt is not collectible until after Shemitah, (for example: a
long term loan whose time for payment was set for a time that is after
the seventh year), the debt is not absolved by Shemitah. Similarly, if
someone sells merchandise on credit, or is owed back-pay for salary, and
no specific time was designated for payment of the debt, it is not
absolved by Shemitah (7).
- According to the Torah, a lender is permitted to give his debts to
Bais Din to be collected by them on his behalf. If he does this, Bais Din
may collect his debts for him even after Shemitah. The seventh year
absolves a borrower only from private debts owed to an individual, and
not debts that a Bais Din has been authorized to collect, as it says
(Devarim 15:3) "...and from that which is yours with _your brother_ you
should remove your hand." Similarly, if a person has been awarded a sum
of money by a verdict in a Bais Din and has not yet been paid - Shevi'is
does not absolve the defendant from such a debt, because this debt is
considered as if it has already been collected, and is not considered by
Halacha to be an outstanding loan (8).
- When the Jewish Nassi (leader) Hillel the Elder saw that lenders were
refraining from lending to the poor because of concern that they would be
unable to collect the debt before the end of Shemitah, he instituted that
the Bais Din should write for lenders a contract called a "Pruzbul".
Pruzbul translates to mean "a remedy for the good of the rich and the
poor". This contract appoints the lender as an agent of Bais Din to
collect his loan, and thus permits him to collect what is owed to him
even after Shemitah.
- The structure of this remedy is to expand upon the concept of "giving
over of debts to Bais Din", i.e. by having the lender declare in front of
a Bais Din that he wishes them to take over his debts, without actually
having to give them written contracts on those debts. This works even on
loans which were enacted by verbal agreement, for which the lender has no
written contract. The Bais Din then writes and executes the Pruzbul, as
- The lender comes before three men who are Halachically worthy of being
judges, and reads to them the following text as written in a document:
"I, (Ploni*), give over before you (Ploni, Ploni, and Ploni) the judges,
that any debts that are owed to me, I may collect through you at any
time that I wish". The three judges, or any two people that witness this,
then sign the document. The document should be dated with the correct
date, if it is postdated it is invalid.
Some are stringent to follow the opinion of the Rambam and the Shulchan
Oruch, and do the Pruzbul procedure only in front of a Bais Din that has
been authorized by the community to actually take money from some
community members and give it to others (10).
- Rav Nachman (an Amoraic sage in the Talmud) added to the remedy of
Hillel by declaring that it was sufficient for the lender to read the
text of the Pruzbul in front of the Bais Din, and it is unnecessary for
the Bais Din to actually put it in writing and sign it. The Rema states
that this is the Halacha. According to this, a lender merely needs to
read the above quoted text in front of three people who are fit to be
judges before the end of the Shemitah year (11).
Additionally, it is possible to declare in front of two witnesses that he
is giving his debts to a specific Bais Din in a specific place, so that
he can collect his debts after Shemitah through that Bais Din. This is
effective even if the judges on that Bais Din are unaware that the lender
has given them the authority to collect his debts.
However, even according to the Rema it is preferable to actually write
and notarize the Pruzbul with the signature of the judges, and not to
rely on a mere verbal declaration.
The opinion of the Rosh is that the prohibition to claim a loan from a
borrower actually starts at the beginning of the Shemitah year, and the
Pruzbul must therefore be written _before_ the _start_ of the Shemitah
year. Therefore, some have the custom to go through the Pruzbul
procedure on the eve of Rosh Hashana at the end of the sixth year.
* [Ploni is a generic Biblical term that represents a person's name]
(1) The Mitzvos and negative prohibitions involved in the Shemitah of
debts are stated in Devarim 15:2. See also the Rambam, Hilchos Shemitah
(2) See the commentary of the Melaches Shlomo on the Mishna in Tractate
Shevi'is 10:2, and the Ben Ish Chai, Parshas Ki Savo.
(3) The fact that Shemitah of debts is a Rabbinic requirement even today
and even outside of Israel is stated in the Rambam (ibid.), and is the
conclusion of our great Poskim. In a case of dire need, i.e. if someone
forgot to make a Pruzbul and is owed a very large amount of money, a
competent Rabbi should be consulted.
(4) Shulchan Oruch, Choshen Mishpat 67:30.
(5) Shulchan Oruch, Choshen Mishpat 67:36.
(6) Rambam, Hilchos Shemitah 9:28.
(7) Shulchan Oruch, Choshen Mishpat 67:10,14,15.
(8) Pruzbul is discussed in the Gemara in Gittin (32b and 36a), in the
Rambam, Hilchos Shemitah 9:16, in the Shulchan Oruch, Choshen Mishpat
67:11, and in the SM"A there 22.
(9) Rema, Choshen Mishpat 67:19, and the SM"A there 24, 38, and 39.
(10) Rambam there (17-18), and the Shulchan Oruch there (18-19). See the
Rema in Choshen Mishpat 3:1, and the SM"A there (2) for a discussion as
to what type of Bais Din qualifies as one that may judge financial
It is important to note that, an additional requirement for Pruzbul is
that the borrower own real estate, even if the lender only gives him a
bit so that the Pruzbul will be effective, as stated in the Shulchan
Oruch there 22-24.
(11) Rema there (20), and SM"A there (22).
This week's class is based on a column by Rabbi Tzvi Shpitz, who is an Av Bet Din and Rosh Kollel in the Ramot neighborhood of Jerusalem. His column originally appears in Hebrew in Toda'ah, a weekly publication in Jerusalem. It has been translated and reprinted here with his permission and approval. His columns have recently been compiled and published in a three volume work called Mishpetei HaTorah, which should be available from your local Sefarim store.
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This week's class is based on a column by Rabbi Tzvi Shpitz, who is an AvBais Din and Rosh Kollel in the Ramot neighborhood of Jerusalem. HisColumn originally appears in Hebrew in Toda'ah, a weekly publication inJerusalem. It has been translated and reprinted here with his permission and approval.
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Please Note: The purpose of this column is to make people aware of Choshen Mishpat situations that can arise at any time, and the Halachic concepts that may be used to resolve them. Each individual situation must be resolved by an objective, competent Bais Din (or Rabbinic Arbitrator) in the presence of all parties involved!
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