| Magazine Feature |

Conflicts of Interest 

Hilchos ribbis is one of the least studied areas of halachah. Rav Pinchas Vind, founder of the Beis Horaah L’Inyanei Ribbis, is here to help you through it


Photos: Elchanan Kotler, Personal Archives

 

Rav Pinchas Vind has a surprising piece of advice for American parents of children studying in Israel.

“Give them a dollar.”

What is this? Some kind of segulah?

“The dollar will save them from committing one of the most serious aveiros,” Rav Vind declares. “They shouldn’t spend the dollar, but make sure to keep it with them the entire time that they’re in Israel. That way they’ll be protected.”

What transgression could a yeshivah bochur or seminary student stumble on, that having a dollar will prevent?

The answer is ribbis, the Torah prohibition of borrowing or lending money to a fellow Jew with interest, explains Rav Pinchas Vind, founder and rabbinical director of the Beis Horaah L’Inyanei Ribbis, the only beis horaah in the world to deal exclusively with hilchos ribbis and its corollary, heter iska. Yeshivah or seminary students studying in Israel often borrow dollars from their friends when they’ve run out of cash and are waiting for some more to arrive from their TAM (Tatty and Mommy) machine back home. The problem is that borrowing dollars in Israel (or any foreign currency anywhere) might entail a serious question of ribbis. That’s because exchange rates fluctuate constantly, and when the borrower returns the money, it may be worth more against the local currency than when he borrowed it. This means that even if he returns the same amount of dollars that he borrowed, it might be worth more in shekels. The problem can be avoided, though, if the borrower has at least one dollar in his possession before he starts borrowing. “This is not a chumrah,” Rav Vind stresses, “but an outright halachah in the Mishnah.”

When I express wonder at this halachah I’d never heard of (who would have ever thought that returning the same amount of money you borrowed could be ribbis?), Rav Vind courteously tells me I’m not alone in my lack of knowledge. Hilchos ribbis is one of the least studied areas of halachah, he claims. Many respected talmidei chachamim, experts in other spheres of halachah, confess to Rav Vind that they have little knowledge of the subject. This, he says, is a tragedy, because ribbis is something that comes up every single day in our lives.

Do you own a business, hold down a job, or learn in kollel? Are you paying a mortgage, living in rented accommodations, or leasing a property to a Jew? Do you ever buy things with a credit card? Pay for purchases, vacation, or debts in installments? Do you ever give or receive postdated checks? Pay monthly utility bills? Borrow anything from a neighbor or friend? Order furniture or electrical items and prepay? Do you ever get a discount when paying for something in advance, or pay more than the regular price with a payment plan? Do you have any investments or pension plans? Ever withdraw money from an ATM, buy foreign currency, cash checks by a moneychanger, or borrow money from a gemach?

If you answered yes to any of the above, you’d better brush up on your knowledge of hilchos ribbis, whether or not you live in Israel (the halachos apply in chutz l’Aretz as well).

Payback Time

Ribbis is the Torah prohibition of lending or borrowing with interest, which means that whenever a Jew borrows money — or any item — from another Jew, he may only repay what he borrowed. The lender mustn’t charge him interest and he mustn’t give back more than he borrowed, even of his own accord, even if it’s just “a present.”

The prohibition of ribbis is so severe that it affects all parties with any level of involvement in the transaction, be it the borrower, the lender, the broker, the lawyer who sets out the contract, the witnesses, the scribe, the advertiser, and so on. And it’s not just one transgression: The lender, for example, transgresses six different prohibitions, and even the borrower transgresses three.

The Torah promises tremendous blessings for those who keep this mitzvah, and warns that one who transgresses this commandment will suffer great financial loss, and even worse, will not merit techiyas hameisim. (The story is told that Rabi Akiva Eiger was once questioned by the city’s authorities as to why the burial society had charged a wealthy family an exorbitant sum of money for burying their father. He answered that Jews believe in techiyas hameisim, so their burial plots were only temporary. However, the rich man who’d died had charged ribbis all his life. He wasn’t going to be resurrected, so his burial plot was permanent, and therefore more expensive.)

When dealing with a non-Jew, however, the halachos of ribbis don’t apply. In fact, a Jew is allowed to repay a non-Jew with interest, and it’s even a mitzvah to charge him interest (forgoing the interest fosters inappropriate feelings of closeness and indebtedness).

If the halachos of ribbis are so pivotal for nearly everyone, why is it that so few people are even aware of them, let alone have proficiency in this area that affects so many facets of our lives?

That’s a question that has caused much angst for Rav Vind. “Hakadosh Baruch Hu gave us 613 commandments, some of which obligate men, others, women, some are only for Kohanim, and some only for people who live in Eretz Yisrael. Yet the mitzvah of ribbis applies to everyone, and today it’s still a d’Oraisa — a Torah-ordained commandment as opposed to a rabbinic commandment. Yet how much do we even know about this mitzvah?

“It’s ironic,” he continues, “that when our children learn parshas Mishpatim, they can tell you in detail about the Jewish slave who had his ear pierced by the doorpost, even though nobody has an eved Ivri nowadays. Yet in the same parshah we have the mitzvah of ribbis, but if it’s taught at all, it’s just theoretical, even though it’s a mitzvah d’Oraisa 365 days a year.”

Rav Vind has made it his life’s mission to change that.

The Laws No One Knows

Rav Pinchas Vind, a graduate of the elite Belz Kollel l’Choshen Mishpat, is the number-one address in Israel for government and private companies who wish to make a heter iska. He gives dozens of weekly shiurim, advises businesses in the relevant halachos, has trained thousands of rabbanim all over the world, authored several important seforim on ribbis in various languages, and set up phone lines to answer sh’eilos 24/6. And now that seminaries and yeshivos have reopened, his schedule is stretched to the limit giving shiurim to students on the topic of ribbis.

What makes a talmid chacham of note, with 30 years of harbatzas Torah behind him, decide one day to delve into the halachos of ribbis and turn it into his life’s mission?

Around ten years ago, Rav Vind was studying Yoreh Dei’ah, chelek beis, when he reached hilchos ribbis. The more he learned, the more he came to the shocking realization: Nobody knew these halachos. They were never taught in cheder, yeshivah, or kollel in a practical way. Perek Eizehu Neshech is a very complicated chapter, containing many difficult halachic terms that few people understand. Unlike hilchos Shabbos, for example, where the concepts of the 39 Melachos are easy to grasp (everybody knows what plowing, cooking, and writing mean), in ribbis there are many words and terms that are difficult to understand even when translated, and few people actually realize what they mean when applied to everyday life.

Rav Vind once heard a talk on ribbis given at a chaburah, and afterward he approached the yungerman to ask whether his wife had a heter iska in the store she owned. The man claimed it was unnecessary, as she never charged anyone interest. “But you just expounded on pesikah b’hozalah — giving a discount for paying up front — and your wife does that all the time,” Rav Vind pointed out. Judging by the confounded expression on the avreich’s face, Rav Vind realized that even those who study ribbis often don’t understand its practical ramifications.

Something had to be done, Rav Vind decided. A way had to be found to teach hilchos ribbis in an easy, interesting manner, and to make people aware that ribbis applies to everyone, whether living in Israel or in chutz l’Aretz.

Rav Vind spent many hours discussing these halachos with Rav Elyashiv ztz”l, who invited him several times to give shiurim on ribbis in his “caravan” shul. Rav Elyashiv often expressed his dismay at the widespread ignorance of hilchos ribbis. “Why do people ask me the most basic sh’eilos in ribbis, halachos that are clearly written in the Mishnah and Gemara? They would never dream of asking such elementary questions on hilchos Shabbos or kashrus.” He urged Rav Vind to go from Talmud Torah to yeshivah, from school to seminary, from one community to the next, teaching hilchos ribbis.

Another encouraging voice came from Rav Ovadiah Yosef ztz”l, who reviewed Rav Vind’s sefer twice, and then asked his son Rav Yitzchak Yosef, current chief rabbi of Israel, to review it too, before giving him an enthusiastic approbation. Rav Yosef often said that Rav Vind had special siyata d’Shmaya in his work, and he further instructed Rav Vind only to accept rabbanim to his beis horaah who had the capacity to explain the halachos of ribbis in a very clear and practical manner. Despite his own encyclopedic breadth of knowledge, Rav Ovadia said he didn’t pasken complicated ribbis questions on his own, but always discussed them with others.

Rav Vind’s own rebbe, the Belzer Rav, once summoned Rav Vind to a meeting, and with great anguish, asked how come every parent makes sure their children know hilchos Shabbos, kashrus, and tefillah, but not a single halachah of ribbis? What are children supposed to think as they see their parents pay their bills and mortgages with interest?

“We need a revolution in this area!” Rav Shmuel Wosner ztz”l often told Rav Vind, encouraging him to be the one to effect it and stressing the importance of teaching hilchos ribbis in kollelim in a very practical way.

Rav Vind, who several years back founded the Chaim Shel Torah organization to help learning-challenged talmidim, harnessed those special techniques he developed in order to teach the complicated halachos of ribbis in the clearest fashion.

Located in Jerusalem’s Romema neighborhood, the Beis Horaah L’Inyanei Ribbis, the special beis din for matters of ribbis, has several departments: answering sh’eilos, training rabbanim, publishing seforim, and advising businesses.

A rotation of 80 rabbanim man the hotline that operates 17 hours a day, and receives up to 600 calls daily, in an assortment of languages. The hotline deals with all sorts of questions. Some are related to the time of year (“It’s Adar, I want to travel to Lizhensk for Rebbe Elimelech’s yahrzeit, a gvir lent me money for fares on the condition that I daven for his whole family at the tziyun, is it a problem?” [Yes]); the upcoming Yom Tov (“May I send mishloach manos to somebody who lent me money if I never sent him before?” [No]); mitzvah projects (“I want to offer interest-free loans of 30K to anyone who promises to start learning daf yomi. Is that permitted?” [No]); and even COVID-related events (“There’s a new law that an airline that cancels its flight has to refund all the money to their customers. My airline is offering an additional 25% to those who are willing to wait for their refund. Is that ribbis?” [Yes, if the airline belongs to Jews, such as El-Al or Ukraine Airlines]).

There is also an automated ribbis line where you can hear shiurim, a daily halachah and ribbis Q & A’s. There are extensions for women and children, as well as a section of stories.

To date, the beis horaah has taught hilchos ribbis to around 2,000 rabbanim and talmidei chachamim. Every year, programs open in different cities to offer people all over Israel the opportunity to study these intricate halachos.

The shiurim are a combination of Choshen Mishpat and Yoreh Dei’ah, a mix of business and halachah, and real-life situations and actual sh’eilos. Participants are taught how business, credit cards, banking, and loans work. After a year and a half of intensive learning and practice, they can choose to be tested and receive heter horaah in ribbis.

So far, over 1,200 avreichim from all over Israel have done so and are now qualified to answer sh’eilos on ribbis. These graduates travel the country to give shiurim in all types of communities, schools, and yeshivos, and there are now over 300 kollelim that study hilchos ribbis — whereas several years ago, there were barely a dozen.

A Ribbis Revolution

Rav Vind soon realized that with hilchos ribbis, it wasn’t enough for the many rabbanim being trained to just be able to pasken yes or no. They had to be able to find solutions. A person’s very livelihood might depend on it.

For example, there was a Yid who desperately needed a loan of 100K to save his business. He could get an interest-free loan from a wealthy man in his community but it would only work through flattery and compliments at the time of asking for the loan and through its donation. Was that permitted? The answer was no — it was ribbis devarim — interest “paid” through speech. The rav’s solution? “Get someone else to flatter the rich man and ask him for a loan for you.” This is known as “ribbis that is not between the lender and borrower,” and is not a transgression.

In another instance, a chassid away from home suddenly realized he’d forgotten to pack the long white socks he always wore on Yom Tov. Wearing weekday attire didn’t come into question, and as the stores were closed, he knocked at a neighbor’s door and asked to borrow a pair, promising that after the holiday, he would of course buy back a new pair, and not give back the used socks. The neighbor was glad to oblige, but wasn’t it ribbis to give back a new pair instead of a used one? The rav on the hotline said it was, and instead advised him not to borrow the socks but to buy and pay for the socks on the spot. When one buys and pays for something right away, no ribbis is involved.

The chief engineer of an Israeli city once came to the beis horaah to ask Rav Vind a sh’eilah. This secular Israeli related how he’d recently heard a lecture Rav Vind had given to lawyers and accountants and a question had arisen in his mind. A couple of years before, he’d lent 400,000 NIS to a lawyer, with the agreement that the lawyer would pay him interest of 3,000 NIS a month. So far, he’d already paid him 78,000 NIS. Was that a problem of ribbis?

Rav Vind started perusing their contract and asked several questions, but the engineer interrupted him. “Listen, I don’t want you to look for leniencies. I only want to continue with this agreement if it’s one hundred percent kosher.”

Well, as it turned out, it was one hundred percent ribbis ketzutzah, ribbis min haTorah.

On the spot, before he dared change his mind, the engineer picked up the phone and informed the flabbergasted lawyer that he only owed him 322,000 NIS instead of 400,000 NIS.

Taking in the incredible scene, Rav Vind couldn’t help but ask the man sitting in front of him what had persuaded him to fulfill this mitzvah and give up on such a large sum of money.

“Well, I heard you say that ribbis is a mitzvah that only applies to Yidden,” the engineer explained. “If that’s the case, I said to myself, if halachah differentiates between a Yehudi and a goy, az ani batzad shel haYehudim — then I’m on the side of the Jews.”

Closing the Deal

One of the most fundamental conditions of doing business in order to avoid complications of ribbis is what’s known as a heter iska, a halachic agreement that turns a loan into a partnership by defining the money lent not as a loan, but as an investment in the property or business of the borrower. For example, if you need a mortgage to buy a house, it is forbidden to borrow money from a Jewish-owned bank and repay it with interest. However, if the bank has a heter iska agreement, it becomes a partner in the ownership of your house, and as an investor, they may collect profits.

The heter iska department is one of the busiest in the beis din, and although the document can be emailed or downloaded for free in eight languages, the beis din prefers to give the companies a face-to-face explanation of the halachic and legal aspects of such an agreement.

Every Jewish-owned bank, credit card company, or business must have a heter iska, because otherwise it’s forbidden for a Jew to do business with them. In Eretz Yisrael, awareness of hilchos ribbis has grown greatly in recent years, and today, many municipalities, banks, private companies, and health funds have a heter iska. And according to Rav Vind, even secular business owners are willing to go along with a heter iska if there is a demand for it and it will improve their bottom line.

“We were once invited by the largest elevator company in Israel to make a heter iska,” Rav Vind relates. “We were about to set off with the relevant documents, when the meeting was cancelled. I called them to inquire what happened, and apparently, one of the directors had unexpectedly arrived at the office and asked who’d initiated this idea of heter iska. When he heard that it came about as a request from a building in Beit Shemesh, he grew annoyed, and said that their company had 12,000 elevators in Israel and was not going to make a heter iska because of one request.”

And that was the end of that. Shockingly, until today, not a single elevator company in Israel — barring one small one in Kiryat Sefer — has a heter iska. That means that every single person in Israel who lives in a building with an elevator transgresses ribbis if the service charges are not paid on time, because according to Israeli law, interest is automatically added for late payments.

There are flip-sides, too. Rav Vind was once contacted by a large car leasing company who wanted to arrange a heter iska urgently. “Only the owner of the company can sign a heter iska,” Rav Vind explained to the branch manager.

The manager immediately got the owner’s consent, and within two days they were ready to sign. Dozens of lawyers and company shareholders sat in their Tel Aviv offices discussing all the legal and halachic aspects of the heter iska. After everything had been signed, they drank a l’chayim to celebrate — the first time they were running their business according to halachah. And then Rav Vind curiously asked the branch manager what had happened. The leasing company had existed for years without a heter iska. Why the sudden emergency?

The manager explained that a chareidi man who’d ordered several cars asked to see the company’s heter iska before taking out the cars. When he heard there wasn’t one, he wanted to cancel the deal. “I threatened to sue him if he broke the contract, but he said he didn’t care. No matter how much it would cost him, he was not going to transgress ribbis. Not wanting to lose the client or get into a complicated lawsuit, we decided to make a heter iska quickly, before he approached a competing company.”

Rav Vind has had some embarrassing moments too, when he’s finally managed to persuade secular Jews to agree to a heter iska, only to have it torpedoed by people who should know better.

“I was contacted by the manager of a large interest-charging loan company in Migdalei Besser near Bnei Berak, whose friend had been badgering him about the importance of heter iska,” he relates. “So there I was, sitting with the manager in his posh office, explaining the severity of ribbis, and how a heter iska would solve the problem. The manager led me outside where a dozen religious customers were waiting in line to exchange their postdated checks. (Cashing a postdated check is like taking out a loan. The moneychanger lends you the money, and you give him a check that is only viable in the future. Because he takes a commission, when the moneychanger cashes your check, he gets more money than he gave you. This is ribbis.) “I don’t understand,” he said to me. “If ribbis is such a serious transgression, how come so many shomrei Torah use our services? Why have none of these people ever asked if I have a heter iska?”

Wherever You Live

Outside of Israel, people mistakenly believe that the halachos of ribbis don’t affect them, because “in chutz l’Aretz everything is non-Jewish.”

They fail to realize how many banks, mortgage companies, bridge or hard loan companies, and even utility companies are owned by Jews. And when it comes to housing, it makes no difference where you live, if the tenant or owner is Jewish. Rental and housing sales contracts contain clauses about interest being added for late payments — and without a heter iska, this is absolutely forbidden. (Unlike Israel, where a heter iska is a legally accepted contract in court, in chutz l’Aretz this is usually not the case. Therefore, a clause needs to be added that any disagreements or disputes connected to the heter iska will be settled by a beis din or dayan. Without this clause, the heter iska is worthless.)

What happens if you buy a home on somebody else’s name? The mortgage is taken out on that person’s name and you repay it every month. The problem is that while your friend may be allowed to pay the interest (because it’s a non-Jewish-owned bank or the bank has a heter iska), you may not repay your friend that interest. If your friend lent you 100K, would you be allowed to repay him 110K? Of course not. Well, if he takes out a mortgage of 100K, you mustn’t repay him 110K either. The fact that he’s also paying 110K to the bank doesn’t help. That’s because the agreement the bank has is with your friend, not with you, so when you repay your friend with interest, both of you transgress ribbis, unless the two of you sign a heter iska.

Similarly, if you use somebody else’s credit card, and that person is charged interest, he may be allowed to pay that interest to the company, but you aren’t allowed to pay him the interest. This is a very common pitfall, as credit card owners are happy to lend their cards to others in order to earn points, but fail to realize that if the borrower repays them with the interest (that the credit card company is charging the card owner) it is ribbis min haTorah.

And of course there are all the Jewish-owned stores and services. If they don’t have a heter iska, it is almost impossible for both providers and consumers to avoid ribbis transgressions.

And if you have Jewish neighbors, it makes no difference that you live in a non-Jewish country. With neighbors borrowing from each other all the time, it is imperative to know the halachos. If you borrow a partially full bottle of oil you may not give back a full bottle, even if you say, “It’s a gift,” and if you borrow a cheap-brand item, it is ribbis to return the same item from a more expensive brand.

People often feel overwhelmed when hearing halachos about ribbis, and many just assume it’s impossible to do business or borrow money according to halachah. Rav Vind emphatically declares that this is not the case. “You can do a lot of business, you just have to know how. By learning the halachos, and asking a rav when necessary, you will see most deals are possible if done in a permissible way.”

As a public service, Rav Vind has authored a series of seforim to teach hilchos ribbis in the easiest and clearest manner. His main work, Ribbis Halachah L’Maaseh Bris Pinchas, is an excellent resource both for scholars and for laymen. He has several other seforim for all types of readerships: businessmen, homemakers, students, newlyweds, and even children, with hundreds of examples and real-life questions. In Israel, callers can dial 02-5015920, from 8 a.m. until

1 a.m., for all their ribbis sh’eilos.

And in Boro Park, Lakewood, and Williamsburg, dozens of rabbanim and talmidei chachamim have recently received heter horaah from the Beis Horaah l’Inyanei Ribbis, qualifying them to pasken sh’eilos. Callers can reach the US ribbis hotline at (845) 493-8604. Similar programs are underway in England and Mexico. Rav Vind’s goal is to set up a ribbis hotline in several countries, instead of having calls there transferred to Israel.

Still, says Rav Vind, several things must happen to really make a revolution in hilchos ribbis. “Firstly, we need to train thousands more people in the halachos, so that there will be rabbanim in each kehillah and town who can pasken these sh’eilos. We also have to start teaching the halachos to our children from an early age. And most importantly, every person has to make sure he knows the halachos for himself. We will all be held accountable. It won’t help to say that we never learned the halachos.”

Rav Vind has noticed an interesting phenomenon. Many times it’s the “regular” people, not necessarily big askanim or rabbanim who are creating change. Often, it’s a request from a parent to implement hilchos ribbis in the school curriculum, a balabos arranging for shiurim in his community, or a yungerman persuading his rosh kollel to introduce the study of hilchos ribbis, that has resulted in real change.

Maybe one of those “regular” people is you. After all, we’re living in the era of Mashiach. Don’t we all want to merit techiyas hameisim?

 

RETURN POLICY

Baruch is an American yeshivah student in Israel. He opens a bank account and often goes into overdraft, for which he is charged interest. He knows the bank has a heter iska, but doesn’t realize that only somebody who owns a business or has profitable assets can rely on a heter iska . (Incidentally, his cousin Mendy in Boro Park doesn’t realize he has the same issue, because his bank in America is owned by a Yid.) The solution for students or young couples in this situation is to have their parents be “makneh” them a part of their house or business to the value of how much their overdraft and interest paid on credit cards and bills come to.

Mrs. Brown teaches in high school. She has an appointment on Monday and asks to change days with her colleague. On Thursday, Mrs. Brown teaches instead of her colleague. Problem is, Monday was a shorter working day than Thursday. Giving back more hours is ribbis. The Shulchan Aruch discusses this problematic scenario, but doesn’t go into details how to overcome it. Rav Vind’s sefer, which is full of practical solutions, brings eight different ways of solving this problem.

Family Schwartz orders a new washing machine and pays in advance. Instead of being delivered the next day, as promised, the washer is delayed for two weeks. To appease them, the store owner gifts them with an iron. This is ribbis.

Chaim lends his roommate a can of Coke on the condition that he wants a cold Coke in return. Because a cold can of Coke is more expensive to buy, it is ribbis to give back a cold can, even if his roommate makes it cold by putting it into his own fridge. (If Chaim didn’t specify the condition of a cold Coke in return, and his roommate anyway keeps his cans in the fridge, then he may return a cold Coke, since it wasn’t a special favor.)

Reb Dovid lost his job and is late with his rental payments. As he’s very handy, he offers to mend things in his landlord’s home for free as compensation. This is ribbis.

Family Diamond makes a bar mitzvah and borrows many beautiful dishes from their neighbors. After the simchah, when they return them, they add a platter of cream cakes in appreciation. This is not ribbis. Halachah differentiates between hashalah — borrowing and returning the actual item that you borrowed, as in this case, and halva’ah — borrowing an item, using it, and buying back a new one. The halachos of ribbis only apply to halva’ah, not hashalah — that means that once the original item is returned, a neighborly gesture of a platter of cake is not ribbis.

Yisroel can’t recall if he borrowed $280 or $380 from his friend. Unfortunately, his friend doesn’t remember either. Yisroel doesn’t want to underpay, yet he also doesn’t want to pay ribbis. In this case, he is allowed to return $380, if his intention is to make sure he has repaid his whole debt.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 842)

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