Talmud pages

Gittin 37

Extra credit.

There’s a saying: It takes money to make money. But that’s circular — how do you make money if you don’t already have money?! That’s where the system of credit and borrowing comes in. 

According to the Torah, all debts are cancelled when the sabbatical year arrives. But why would someone lend out money for more than six years if they knew they would lose out on most of the repayment? Why would anyone lend out money at all right before the sabbatical year if the debt was going to immediately disappear? But without the ability to access capital, how is anyone going to start a new business, expand a current project or just try something new? 

The rabbis of the Talmud have already explored one way to get around the sabbatical remission of debts: the prozbol. On today’s daf, we get a different approach: 

One who repays a debt to his friend during the sabbatical year, (the creditor) must say to him: I abrogate the debt. But if (the debtor) said to him: Nevertheless, (I want to repay you), he may accept it from him, as it is stated: “And this is the manner [devar] of the abrogation” (Deuteronomy 15:2). 

Rabbah said: And he can lift up (his eyes) to him until he says this.

One does not have to repay one’s debts on the sabbatical year, but one can still choose to. And according to Rabbah, the lender can even lift up their eyes (think sad puppy dog) at the creditor until he feels pressured to pay him back. But what if the borrower still isn’t picking up on what the lender is putting down? Apparently, that once happened to Rabbah himself! Rabbah lent money to Abba bar Marta (aka Abba bar Minyumi, who we’ve already seen borrow money from someone in Yevamot 120). But Abba bar Marta attempted to repay him during the sabbatical year.

Rabba said to him: I abrogate. (Abba bar Marta) took the money and left. Abaye came and found that he was sad. Abaye said to him: Why is the master sad? He said to him: This was the incident. 

Abaye went to Abba bar Marta and said to him: Did you bring the money to the master? He said to him: Yes. Abaye said to him: And what did he say to you? He said to him:  I abrogate. Abaye said to him: And did you say to him: Nevertheless, I want to repay you? He said to him: No. 

He said to him: But if you had said to him: Nevertheless, I want to repay you, he would have taken it from you. Now, in any event, bring it to him and say to him: Nevertheless, I want to repay you. He went and brought it to him and said to him: Nevertheless, and (Rabbah) took it from him.

When Rabbah follows the rabbinic protocol and Abba bar Marta doesn’t end up paying him back, Abaye takes it upon himself to explain to Abba bar Marta that he should try again.  And indeed, this second time, Rabbah graciously accepts the money. 

Now, Abba bar Marta was clearly intending to pay back his debt and had the money in hand. So in actuality, what ended up happening was what he had intended to happen the whole time — the money that Rabbah lent him was returned. And it’s also clear that credit would dry up in a world where debts are cancelled every seven years, with serious effects on the economy.

But in the rabbis’ realistic appraisal of the need for credit, we also lose something. After all, Deuteronomy states very clearly that “all creditors shall remit the due that they claim from their fellows,” in the sabbatical year. (Deuteronomy 15:2). The Torah’s economic system is meant to integrate not only economic concerns, but spiritual concerns as well. 

To put it otherwise: It is obvious what we gain (financially) from creating workarounds for the sabbatical remission of debts. But what do we lose?

Read all of Gittin 37 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 23rd, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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