Nedarim 86

Slippery collateral.

In order to buy a house, most people rely on a mortgage. A bank gives you a loan to pay for a house, you make payments over an agreed upon length of time for an agreed upon rate of interest. While you are paying off the loan, the bank has a lien on the house — if you fail to adhere to the terms of the loan, the bank can take possession of it.

While the banking industry has more tools than it did during the rabbinic period, the Talmud provides many examples in which people put up property as collateral for a loan. But some kinds of collateral are more complicated than others. On today’s daf, we read:

Rava said: Consecration of an item to the Temple, becoming subject to the prohibition of leavened bread on Passover, and the emancipation of a slave abrogate any lien that exists upon them. 

According to Rava, if a person consecrates property to the Temple that had previously been designated as collateral for a loan, the act of consecration overrides the lien and the property can no longer be claimed if the terms of the loan are violated. Similarly, if the lien was placed upon hametz (leaven) and Passover arrives, the prohibition against benefitting from hametz on Passover cancels the lien. And, in a case when a slave was designated as collateral for a loan, if the slave is freed by their owner, they can no longer be held as collateral.

Having rules for loans, especially those that protect the lender against a loss when the borrower defaults, allows those who have resources to lend and those who need to borrow. What Rava is suggesting, however, is that there are other rules that are more important than those that govern loans.

Why these three things in particular? Rava does not provide any rationale for his choices, but we might intuit what he was thinking on our own. We know that when property is given to the Temple, it takes on a sacred status, as if it is owned by God, and so it makes sense that such a gift is stronger than any promise made to another human being. We’ve also learned that the commandment to remove hametz from one’s home on Passover is among the most serious of religious obligations in the mind of the rabbis, so including it on this list makes sense as well.

Biblical and rabbinic law allow for the practice of servitude, but given the centrality of the Exodus from Egypt and the liberation from servitude that came with it in the Jewish narrative, there are a number of ways that Jewish law limits the practice. Rava suggests that one of those is to prevent a person who once was a slave to be treated like property after their emancipation, including when they were named as collateral for a loan while still in servitude.

While Rava’s principle is adopted by the rabbinic legal system, a caveat was put in to provide protection for the lender. Although the lien upon which the loan was established is canceled, the debt is not. If in any of these cases that Rava mentions the borrower defaults, the lender’s claim can be applied to other property, allowing them to recover the funds.

Read all of Nedarim 86 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 19th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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