Parshios Behar & Bechukosai
Avoiding Usury - In Your Own Best Interest
If your brother becomes poor, and his ability [to earn a living] is
weakened - give him a hand - so that he can live with you. Do not take
from him interest; you shall fear your G-d and let your brother live
with you. Do not lend him your money with interest, nor your food shall
you lend at an increased price. [25:35-37]
The above verses contain the prohibition against usury - lending another
Jew money for interest. In Hebrew, interest is called neshech - a bite,
because its payment eats into the flesh of the borrower, and marbis -
increase, because it grows and grows as time passes.
Chazal say that one who lends money with interest will not be brought
back to life at the time of Techiyas Ha-meisim (the resurrection of the
dead - see Tosafos Bava Metzia 70b). As a rule, punishment and reward
have an element of logic and consequence. What is so unforgivable about
the sin of lending with interest that it warrants such a severe and unusual
In Pozen, the home-town of the great and revered sage Rabbi Akiva
Eiger zt"l, lived a wealthy Jew. Unfortunately, this Jew had built his
fortune largely by lending money to other Jews with interest. He was
hated by his brethren, many of whom refused to borrow from him (it
is prohibited not only to lend money with interest but also to borrow).
Those who did borrowed out of necessity and desperation.
At his death, no one felt any great sorrow. When his family approached
the Chevra Kadisha (burial society) to make funeral and burial
arrangements, they were rebuffed. They would not allow the man to
receive Jewish burial unless his family would pay the exorbitant sum of
two-thousand rubles for his plot in the Jewish cemetery.
His children were incensed. There was no doubt in their minds that this
was indisputable extortion, and revenge for the community's hatred of
their father. To be sure, it was expected that the wealthy subsidize the
cemetery by paying a little bit more for their plots than others, but even
the wealthiest of Jews was never charged more than twenty rubles - and
they were being asked for 100 times that!
Feeling that the beis-din would be unsympathetic to their objections, they
approached the local poritz (feudal lord) and complained that they were
being coerced by their community to pay an exorbitant price for their
father's burial. One of the roles of the poritz was to ensure that his
constituents were treated with justice and fairness. He summoned R'
Akiva Eiger and demanded an explanation for the Chevra Kadisha's
exceptional demands. "While I understand that your Torah forbids Jews
to charge each other interest, and that this man did so, it seems unfair
to me to punish him - and his family - by demanding such a ridiculous
sum of money for a simple plot of land in the Jewish cemetery. I demand
an explanation, or else I will determine the price!"
"With all due respect," the sage began, "I will explain the ruling of the
burial society, and the poritz will see that their demand is in fact most
reasonable, perhaps even charitable!
"According to our Sages of blessed memory, all Jews - with one
exception - will one day be resurrected from their graves and be
returned to the Land of Israel; this will occur after the coming of
Mashiach. The only Jews who won't be resurrected are those who lent
money for interest.
"So you see for all normal Jews, we are forced to charge a very
reasonable price for their cemetery plot. It is our hope that Mashiach will
arrive speedily in our days, and this being the case, their plot is not
being sold to them but merely rented. And how much can we charge for a
rental - especially when we hope it will be shortlived?!
"But this Jew, since he built his fortune by lending money to other Jews
with interest, he will not be resurrected. His body is destined to remain
in his plot for the rest of time. For him, his burial site is not a rental
but rather an eternal sale, and as such it is only logical to charge him an
appropriate price! In fact, for what he's getting, I think it's rather a
The poritz was duly impressed with the rabbi's logic. "If you want a
Jewish burial," he told the family, "do as you are told. Otherwise - you
can bury him in one of our cemeteries."
With this story, the Ben Ish Chai explains the above verses: Do not take
from him interest; you shall fear your G-d, and let your brother live with
you - if you fear G-d and resist the desire to lent money for interest,
then you and your brother will "live" together at the time of
resurrection. If not, he alone will stand up, but you will be left lying
in your grave. Do not lend him your money with interest, nor your food
shall you lend at an increased price - your food, oc'lecha in Hebrew, can
also represent the grave, which consumes the flesh of the body. If you
abstain from lending money with interest, the price of your oc'lecha
(burial plot) will not have to be increased far above that of other Jews;
otherwise, it may become your eternal home, and it will command an
From the context of the above verses, it seems that the money is being lent to a person in great need, to a man who might once have been
well-to-do, and has become poor, and has lost his ability to earn a
decent living. By insisting on charging him interest, the lender denies him
the chance to get back up on his feet.
Techiyas Ha-meisim according to some commentators is a second chance;
a time to serve Hashem without the constraints and difficulties of life in
exile - to live as a Jew in the times of Mashiach. Perhaps this is why
Chazal say that one who lends money with interest will not get up on his
feet at the time of Techiyas Ha-meisim - just as he has denied his brother
the opportunity to get back on his feet and start a new life. May we
withstand the desire to profit from the misfortune of others, and do
chessed with only the purest intentions.
Have a good Shabbos.
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Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Torah.org