Bava Metzia 115

Collateral damage.

The Hebrew Bible contains numerous exhortations to care for disadvantaged classes in society, most notably husbandless widows and fatherless orphans. Exodus 22:21–3 states: “You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their cry as soon as they cry out to Me, and My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword, and your own wives shall become widows and your children orphans.” In the absence of a male protector, God serves that function. 

For the last few days, the Gemara has taken up the topic of laws governing a lender’s right to take collateral from a borrower in order to secure a loan. Today, the discussion turns to the rights of the widow in this regard. A mishnah on today’s daf states: 

With regard to a widow, whether she is poor or whether she is wealthy, one may not take collateral from her, as it is stated: “And you may not take the garment of a widow as collateral.” (Deuteronomy 24:17)

The Gemara identifies the author of this mishnah as Rabbi Yehuda and introduces a disagreement. 

Rabbi Shimon says: With regard to a wealthy widow, one may take collateral from her. But with regard to a poor widow, one may not take collateral from her, because you are obligated to return it to her, and you will thereby give her a bad name among her neighbors.

It’s important to recall that loans, in the Torah’s view, are usually a form of charity. Collateral protects the lender, but can increase the hardship of those forced to take a loan. To protect widows, who are known to be disadvantaged already, the Torah prescribes that they need not put up collateral. But while Rabbi Yehuda reads the Torah’s prohibition as applying to all widows, Rabbi Shimon thinks it applies only to poor ones.

How does he come to this conclusion? By reading a nearby verse from the Torah, Deuteronomy 24:13, which states that if a lender takes a garment as collateral from a poor borrower who has nothing else of value to offer as security, they are obligated to return it before sundown. Rabbi Shimon imagines a scene in which an impoverished widow has men coming to her house in the evening in order to return the garment she offered as collateral, and fears that she might become the subject of gossip by neighbors who may suspect her of unsavory behavior, including the suspicion that she has become a sex worker to help make ends meet following the death of her husband. The Siftei Chachamim, a 17th-century Dutch commentator on Rashi, suggests the gossipers might believe that she is having an improper relationship with the lender himself. 

So, which ruling wins out? Can collateral be collected from a wealthy widow as well as a poor one? The Gemara doesn’t tell us, but Maimonides does, and forcefully at that:

“Collateral may not be taken from a widow, whether she is rich or poor … This prohibition applies even when the court would supervise the matter. If a creditor takes such collateral, it must be returned, even against his will. If the widow admits the debt, she must pay. If she denies its existence, she must take an oath. If the security the creditor took was lost or was consumed by fire before he returns it, he is punished by lashes.” (Mishneh Torah, Creditor and Debtor 3:1)

According to the Rambam, not only should collateral not be taken from a widow at all — no matter whether she is wealthy or not — but if it is, it is forcibly given back and if something happens to prevent its return, the lender faces corporal punishment. 

In the end, the rabbis conclude that widows should never be put in the damaging position of having their belongings used as collateral. Even wealthy widows are understood to be vulnerable and in need of this protection.

Read all of Bava Metzia 115 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 23, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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