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Shemittah Loan Amnesty: Pruzbul

Shemittah Loan Amnesty: Pruzbul

Questions and answers about the cancellation of debts on the Sabbatical year, and what we do about it

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I understand that every seven years is a Sabbatical year, during which Israeli farmers give their fields a break and all debts are canceled. How does the debt thing work? What happens if someone owes me money? Am I really obligated to let it slide? Also, I’ve heard that there is something called a pruzbul that somehow circumvents the law. What’s up with that?

Good question. Let’s start at the beginning. We read in the book of Deuteronomy:

This is the law of the Shemittah: to release the hand of every creditor from what he lent his friend; he shall not exact from his friend or his brother, because the time of the release for the L‑rd has arrived.1

This tells us that part of the observance of Shemittah (the Hebrew term for the Sabbatical year) is the forgiving of all loans. Any debts that are unpaid at the conclusion of the last day of the Shemittah year are canceled. Even if a borrower wishes to repay his debt, the lender may not accept it unless he reminds the borrower that the debt has been canceled, and the borrower still insists on giving him the money “as a gift.” (Indeed, it is considered praiseworthy for a borrower to do this.)

At the same time, the Torah forbids us to refrain from lending money for fear of Shemittah canceling the loan, and commands us to lend happily, despite the possibility that we may not be paid back.

In the words of the Torah:

Beware lest there be in your heart an unfaithful thought, saying, “The seventh year, the year of release is approaching,” and you will begrudge your needy brother and not give him . . . You shall surely give him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him; for because of this the L‑rd, your G‑d, will bless you in all your work and in all your endeavors.2

So where does this leave the modern lender and borrower? How is someone supposed to lend money knowing that the debt will be wiped out in just a few years?

This problem has been around for over 2,000 years. Hillel saw that people were avoiding lending money as the Shemittah year nearedIn the first century BCE, Hillel the Elder saw that people were avoiding giving loans as the Shemittah year neared. This posed two problems: 1) The wealthy people were transgressing the Torah prohibition against withholding loans out of fear of Shemittah. 2) The poor people who desperately needed loans had no way to procure them. He came up with a novel solution.

Hillel noted that the Torah tells us that only private debts3 are canceled by Shemittah: “He shall not exact from his friend or his brother.” If, however, one owes the court (i.e., the community) money, Shemittah does not affect the loan. Based on this rule, he instituted the pruzbul: a mechanism by which debts are transferred to a beit din (religious court).4 By making a pruzbul, you make your private debts public—and therefore redeemable.5

Isn’t this a loophole devised to circumvent a divinely ordained law?

The Talmud6 explains that nowadays the Shemittah loan amnesty is no longer in effect according to biblical law.7 Thus, since the Shemittah that we observe today is a rabbinic injunction, Hillel was empowered to circumvent these laws due to pressing need.

When do I make a pruzbul?

Although loans are not canceled until the end of the Shemittah year, once the Shemittah year begins there are those who rule that a lender may not demand payment of a loan (although he may accept it without demurring if the borrower wishes to repay on his own). For this reason, many have the custom to make a pruzbul before Rosh Hashanah immediately prior to the Shemittah year, to be able to collect payment throughout the Shemittah year. Once the pruzbul has been made, any additional loans will require an additional pruzbul.

Others simply make a pruzbul at the end of the seventh year, just before the loans are suspended. To cover all grounds, there are many—including Chabad—who make the pruzbul twice, once before the Shemittah year, and once again just before it concludes.

This year, the last day before Rosh Hashanah will be Sunday, September 13, 2015, and you should have made your (first) pruzbul by then. If you did not, you can do so until the following Rosh Hashanah.

What do I need to do?

Here is the text of the pruzbul:

I give over to you [the beit din] all debts which I have, so that I may collect them any time I wish.

There are two ways to deliver the text to the court:

a) The simplest and most convenient way is to attend morning prayer services in your local synagogue on the day before Rosh Hashanah.Make your pruzbul online After the services, a hatarat nedarim ceremony is conducted, during which each member of the congregation stands before a beit din consisting of three (or, in certain communities, ten) of his peers, and recites a vow annulment statement. (Click here for more on hatarat nedarim.) Immediately after finishing the hatarat nedarim, everyone recites the aforementioned pruzbul text, thus orally transmitting all debts to this ad hoc court.

b) If this is not an option, you can transmit your debts to a beit din in writing. Click here to make a pruzbul online.

What if I don’t owe any money?

Because of the uniqueness of the mitzvah of pruzbul, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory, encouraged everyone to make the effort to make a pruzbul. In fact, he suggested that even someone who has no collectable debts, and thus has no need for a pruzbul, should symbolically lend a small sum of money to someone else in order to be able to observe the rare and easy rabbinical institution of pruzbul.

Footnotes
3.

It is important to note that not all financial obligations are considered loans and subject to being canceled by Shemittah. In case of doubt, consult a halachic authority. See also footnote 5.

4.

For technical reasons, the borrower must have in his possession some real estate in order for the pruzbul to take effect. A rental property, dorm room, or even a place to sleep in your parents’ home is sufficient for this purpose. In the event that the borrower does not have any real estate in his possession, the lender can “lend” him a tiny parcel of land for the moment. A rabbi should be consulted on how this should be done in a halachically acceptable manner.

5.

According to the strict letter of the law, nowadays one can collect a debt even without the benefit of a pruzbul. The reason? “Since it has become the custom to collect debts, even without a pruzbul, after Shemittah, and the borrower is aware of this custom, it is as if the lender explicitly stipulated that the loan will never be canceled, even by Shemittah. In such an instance, the borrower has taken upon himself an obligation [with the knowledge that] the Torah does not require him to pay, and this is a valid stipulation.” Nevertheless, “Any G‑d-fearing individual should be stringent and make a pruzbul” (Shulchan Aruch Harav, Laws of Loans 35).


One should also consider that pruzbul is a unique and rare mitzvah—and one that is very simple to observe!

6.

Gittin 36a.

7.

For approximately the past 2,500 years, the agricultural Shemittah rules have not been in effect according to biblical law (see Deserting the Farms for further explanation), and the rabbis deduced from scriptural nuance that all the laws of Shemittah are inextricably tied to each other. Thus, biblically, Shemittah’s loan amnesty is in effect only when its agricultural rules are observed.

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Simon UK September 15, 2015

Shemittah Loan Amnesty: Pruzbul Does this have implications for our debt based monetary system (i.e. fiat currency that is not backed by gold or silver), banking system and debt based government spending? Reply

Rob DeMaggio Sloatsburg, New York September 14, 2015

Shemitah How then are the poor blessed by Hashem's gift of shemitah if the law can so easily be circumvented? And the rich too are robbed of being blessed to open their hand freely as Hashem has instructed us. Reply

Anonymous toronto August 5, 2015

charity I hate charity so pruzbul would not work for me , but what family gives is not charity .It is called inheritance that i am willing to accept. Pruzbul is only a commandment to be observed for the community . Reply

Shaul Wolf Chabad.org August 4, 2015

Re: 1) When the individual collects the loan, he does so as the agent of the court. It is as if he is being sent by the court to collect the debt that is owed to them. The court then transfers the money back to him as an individual.
2) The Talmud asks this question too, and concludes that the institution of Hillel is only effective nowadays, when the Shmittah observance is Rabbinic in nature. Being that our observance of Shmittah nowadays is Rabbinically mandated, it is within their power to decide when it is and when it is not applicable. Reply

Charles July 31, 2015

pruzbul How can one transfer property (money loaned to others) to a community, then still collect them him/her self? If G-d's law does not apply here, why don't we just do away with all of G-d's laws. Pruzbul is man-made and participation appears hypocritical! Reply

Parke Messier Richmond, VA March 14, 2015

Shemittah I'm curious about the document which was used in ancient times to record a debt. It was basically an agreement between the debtor and the creditor that this debt existed and it was sealed in a special way so as to insure that the document was legal and also not tampered with. Do you have any further information on this document and the sealing? Reply

Anonymous Everett February 9, 2015

Are people really going to give up farming? Reply

Steve E Abraham New York September 29, 2014

Isn't a Pruzbul then violating the Torah? "Although our custom is to make a Pruzbul, if one forgot to do so they may still collect their loans. " How can this be, as it would then be a direct contradiction of a Torah law? So a really big question is then, if shemittah law is not enforced or followed, why do we need the Pruzbul? By not enforcing shemittah, there is no need for Pruzbul? Do you say the bracha of hamotzi for bread, if you do not eat bread? Do you say the bracha for tefillin if you are not putting on tefillin right after? Why do a Pruzbul if shemittah is not followed? Reply

Shaul Wolf Chabad.org September 24, 2014

Re: Although strictly speaking there is no need to make a pruzbul unless you are owed money, the custom is that everyone makes a pruzbul. As mentioned in the article, the Rebbe would encourage people to lend even small amounts of money before Rosh Hashanah ust to be able to fulfill this Rabbinic enactment. Reply

Shaul Wolf Chabad.org September 24, 2014

Re: Steve Although our custom is to make a Pruzbul, if one forgot to do so they may still collect their loans. Being that when a person takes a loan they are expecting to get it back, and the lender is expecting to have to pay it back, we consider it as if they had stipulated between themselves that the borrower will never be absolved from this loan, even as a result of the shmittah. In such an instance, the borrower may collect the loan even after the shmittah has passed. Reply

Melissa September 23, 2014

Pruzbul Does a person who OWES money need to make a pruzbul? Reply

Steve E Abraham New York September 23, 2014

question about pruzbul, someone who forgets to make it? If I forget to make a pruzbul, then do I loose all the money I have loaned out, even though those are honorable loans with integrity? And if I borrow money from someone who forgets to make a pruzbul, am I absolved from paying this debt back? Reply

Anonymous toronto September 13, 2014

debts The community is responsible for the debts of a righteous man . Reply

Anonymous September 2, 2014

This was just another way to legalize the money changers. There is no trust in G-d if you have to resort to such measures to "ensure" people loan out money. As the Torah encourages the loaning of money, in spite of the Shemitah law. What Hillel should have done was reprimanded the rich for not loaning out money. They should have feared G-d more than their money!!! Do they not know, nor understand, that the Shemitah law was a picture of how G-d handles the debt owed Him? Nevertheless, there had already been customs of not forgiving loans even before Pruzbul, it was only instituted to legalize the debt collecting.

May they wake to see their love for the money and repent before G-d! Reply

Anonymous Taupo, New Zealand May 15, 2012

If the torah is accepted as true and valid then anything that remotely encourages fraud is simply fraud, no matter how the spelling. If we "give" then that is it, no recourse. Giving to a community voids automatically any perceived entitlements to collect afterwords. We have forgotten that everything is either a gift or is slavery. Reply

Yisroel Cotlar Cary, NC July 22, 2010

Re: A good question.

I think it's important to note that Hillel wasn't seeking to institute the Pruzbul. It was created as a result of a problem that was getting out of hand. You might attribute the hesitation to lend out money as a lack in faith, but practically speaking, loans were not being issued to those that desperately needed them.

In his love for his fellow Jews, Hillel realized that this was the only way to ensure that money would still be lent out - and in a manner that would not violate the Torah's prohibition. Reply

sowreap Mukilteo July 18, 2010

Whom Do I Trust? Am I missing something here? Doesn't pruzbul encourage us to put our trust in man above our trust in the L-rd? Reply

Anonymous Calgary, AB August 4, 2009

loans I can not see why one should choose to observe a rabbinical institution when one has the opportunity of observing the Divine one? It is like letting a great opportunity just slip away. People get in the habit of too many slips.
Imagine the Lord, standing before you, in Person, would you say "No thanks, I prefer the rabbinical institution".
Who could really pass up the opportunity to say "Yes, Lord. I would be most happy to. Thank you". Reply

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