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23 Iyar 5761 - May 16, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Shema Yisrael Torah Network

Opinion & Comment
Upholding the Prohibition of Usury Connects One to the Roots of Life

by L. Jungerman

"Take no usury from him or increase; but fear your G-d; that your brother may live with you" (Vayikra 25:36.). The prohibition of usury was fixed by Chazal as high on the ladder of severe sins. One who lends money for interest will not be resurrected at the time of techiyas hameisim, which is virtually saying that this sin strikes at the very root of life. The Torah states this commandment -- "Take from him no usury . . . that your brother may live with you" -- to teach us that taking interest is equal to sucking the very lifeblood of a person, the marrow and essence of his life. And one who takes the life of another is not living, himself; he is dead.

Not in vain did the Torah liken interest to venom: neshech, a snakebite, for it was the Serpent who was the first to introduce the poison of death into the veins of Mankind, the originally-eternal creations who thenceforth became mortal.


HaRav Yonoson David, rosh yeshivas Pachad Yitzchok, illuminates the meaning of the prohibition of taking interest in his introduction to Otzar Meforshei HaTalmud, (Perek Ribbis).

We find in Melochim II the story of a woman, wife of one of the contemporary nevi'im, who came to Elisha weeping that the moneylender had come to claim her two children. Rashi and Radak bring the words of the Midrash stating that this was the wife of Ovadia who had borrowed money with interest in order to sustain the nevi'im in the time of King Achov. These are their words: "Ovadia fulfilled `And his money he did not give in interest' but Yehorom, did lend money for interest . . . Said Hashem . . . ' "

This is not just a retelling of the facts the way they took place, simply recounting a story, but is brought to clarify the episode regarding Elisha, who was granted double the potency of Eliyohu's spirit to perform miracles in reviving the dead.

We must bring here the words of the Ramban regarding the commandment of the Shulchon in the Mishkan: "Ever since the creation of the world ex nihilo, Hashem does not create anything, including His blessing, from nothing, yeish mei'ayin. Rather, the world operates according to the set rules of nature as established at the time of Creation, as it is written, `And Hashem saw all that He had done and lo, it was very good.' But when there is a root of something, a shoresh, then the blessing can settle on it and cause increase.

"Elisha asked, `Tell me, what do you have in the house?' and the blessing subsequently came to rest upon the cruse of oil and filled all the vessels she had and had managed to borrow. With Eliyohu [it came to rest on], `The vessel of flour did not become depleted and the pitcher of oil was never wanting.' Similarly, the Shulchon always had the Lechem Haponim which was the root of [material] blessing and thereby plenitude was channeled to all of Israel. Therefore was it said: Every kohen who received even a small portion the size of a bean would eat and become fully sated."

We have received in explanation of this important principle in the Ramban that the Torah is not relating to the prophet's capacity to perform miracles of supernatural order, but that the point applies to the descent of bounty and blessing to this world. The world, as it was created, is "very good," full of plenitude, as was declared at the time of creation. This is reflected through the phenomenon of growth and sprouting, germination of a small seed which can eventually produce a multitude of fruit. This burgeoning is the blessing of expansion and the process is a natural one; it is all in the course of nature. The power of growth was incorporated into the nature of the world and is an expression of the primeval "very good" of Creation. "Very good" actually translates into the expansion of good or, in other words, into blessing.

This primeval nature was flawed through the sin of Odom Horishon, which caused the curse of "thistles and brambles shall grow for you." In the process of abundance of the world there was introduced a factor of lack and impairment.

According to the Ramban, the act of Elisha is not a wonder or any supernatural act that changes nature, but merely a restoration of the original "very good" that was incorporated into Creation -- a return to the time before the Sin. He was able to draw that pristine blessing into the cruse of oil while removing the impediment of "thorn and thistle" in order to reach that original state of "very good." This became the source of great munificence. These are the words of the Ramban as they apply to this matter.

Now we can more clearly understand the words of the Midrash Aggada quoted by Rashi. Elisha told the woman, "And you shall pour into all of those vessels and move aside the full ones." Move them from before you and place another vessel in its stead. The cruse of oil which was the source of the blessing was not to be moved because Hashem had transformed it into a wellspring, and springs are not wont to move from their place.

In other words, Elisha restored that cruse of oil to its original state before Odom's sin and the decree of death in this world. Before, life had a special power of eternal continuity. This is why he later told her, "And you and your sons shall live on the remainder [of the oil]."

"Until the dead are resurrected," say Chazal quoted by Rashi, there. In other words, the potency of that blessing would be in effect increasingly until techiyas hameisim.


We must now review the words of the Maharal (Drush leShabbos Hagodol) about the severity of the prohibition of taking interest, punishable by the denial of techiyas hameisim from the sinner. Eternal perdition. Seen in depth, his holy words indicate a punishment of measure for measure. The sinner trespassed the boundaries of life and the plenty of his friend to take some for himself. This is not like ordinary theft which a person seizes from another, but rather he appropriates the gain in a businesslike agreement. In this way he is appropriating the very source of blessing and growth in his friend's life, that source that comes from Hashem, Who sends everyone sustenance and life.

That is why regarding the prohibition of usury, the Torah states: "And your brother shall live with you." And that is why it is called "neshech." The usurer is biting into that blessing, so to speak, just like the snake bit into the immortality of man by introducing the sin that led to death in this world. The snake's venom is not merely a local wound but a poison that enters the very bloodstream, the life flow that affects the source of blessing. It cuts off the flow of blessing whose nature is expansion; it introduces contraction, curtailment of life and insinuates itself into the entire body until no space for life or vitality remains.

Ovadia was privileged since he did not give his money for usury (even though he was forced to borrow money on interest in order to sustain the prophets whom he had hid) and rewarded with the oil that became a spring and source of the very blessing that prevailed in the world before the bite of the serpent and the decree of death in the world that resulted from it. Thus, one who keeps the commandment of refraining from usury is connecting himself to the source of eternal life.

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