In chapter nine of Hilchot Shemitah VeYovel, Maimonides addresses the laws regarding the nullification of debts during the Sabbatical year. After detailing the Biblical command to absolve all debts in the seventh year, Maimonides1 introduces the concept of pruzbul, a mechanism by which one is able to claim debts owed, even after the Sabbatical year (‘Shemitah’) has passed.

How does this work?

The verse, “What is yours, with your brother, your hand shall release,”2 implies that debts lent to your brother shall be absolved. This, however, does not include debts owed to the court. Therefore, a pruzbul designates one’s personal debts to the court, allowing the individual to collect even after the Sabbatical year. Indeed, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah before a Sabbatical year, it is proper to arrange a pruzbul for one’s loans.

Pruzbul was instituted by Hillel during the Second Temple period, when he saw that people were reluctant to lend money for fear of not recovering the funds.

Nevertheless, the process is not quite as straightforward as it sounds. We will attempt to decipher a crucial section of Talmud which explores the evolution of pruzbul.

The Source of this Law in the Talmud

After describing what a pruzbul is, the Talmud asks the following simple question: How is it possible for pruzbul to circumvent a Biblical mitzvah?

Abaye said: Hillel is referring to the Sabbatical Year in the present, and it is in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi. Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi says: The verse states in the context of the cancellation of debts: “And this is the manner of the abrogation: He shall abrogate” (Deuteronomy 15:2). The verse speaks of two types of abrogation: One is the abrogation of land and one is the abrogation of monetary debts. Since the two are equated, one can learn the following: At a time when you abrogate land, you abrogate monetary debts; at a time when you do not abrogate land, you also do not abrogate monetary debts.3

Even though Shemitah did not apply Biblically in Hillel’s time, nevertheless, the Rabbis reinstated it, so that “the laws of Shemitah would not be forgotten.”4 This being the case, explains the Talmud, Hillel was able to circumvent elements of Shemitah with the ordinance of pruzbul. What makes it Rabbinic? A comparison between the abrogation of monetary debts and the abrogation of land. Rashi and Tosafot disagree on the workings of this equivalence:

Rashi understands the abrogation of land as referring to the mitzvah of leaving the land (in Israel) fallow during the Sabbatical year. During the time of Hillel, the Biblical command to leave the land fallow no longer applied, meaning Shemitah of the land was only a Rabbinic ordination.5 Now comes the comparison of Shemitah of the land to that of loans: when the land is left fallow due to a Biblical obligation, then the abrogation of monetary debts is also a Biblical obligation. Leaving the land fallow and the abrogation of debts go hand in hand. However, since at this point in time leaving the land fallow, only applied due to a Rabbinic ordinance, the same holds true for the abrogation of loans. At this point, Hillel saw that people were reluctant to lend because the Rabbinic ordinance which reinstituted Shemitah was causing them monetary loss, therefore he instituted pruzbul. As such, the ordinance of pruzbul was not instituted to circumvent a Biblical obligation but a Rabbinic one.

Tosafot, on the other hand, understands the Talmud’s reference to abrogation of land as referring to the literal abrogation of land—namely the Jubilee year. The Jubilee year takes place after seven cycles of Shemitah. At that time, all land sold during the previous 49 years reverts to its original owner. During the Second Temple period, since not all the Jews returned to the Land of Israel, the Jubilee year was no longer practised.6 This is the comparison the Talmud is making. Only if the Jubilee year is practiced Biblically, is the abrogation of loans also practised on a Biblical level. This explains why when Hillel instituted pruzbul, Shemitah was only a Rabbinic decree.

Although there is disagreement regarding the workings of this comparison, all agree that according to Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi the abrogation of debt today is merely Rabbinic in nature. But the Sages of the Mishnaic period disagree, and believe that even today abrogation of debt is a Biblical obligation.7 According to almost all Rishonim, however, the final law follows the opinion of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi8 and not the sages: the abrogation of debt today is a Rabbinic obligation.9

Can The Rabbis Enact An Ordinance Contrary to a Biblical Law?

The Talmud, however, is not done, it continues to question the workings of pruzbul by asking:

But is there anything like this, where by Torah law the Sabbatical Year does not cancel the debt, and the Sages instituted that it will cancel? [Unless a pruzbul is made.]

If there is a Biblical obligation to repay the loan, how can the rabbis tell the borrower not to pay? This would cause the borrower to steal! For this the Talmud provides two resolutions:10

Abaye believes that since the law of not repaying a loan is something that is done passively—no action is taken by the borrower; he simply doesn't repay—in such a situation the rabbis have the authority to override a Rabbinic prohibition. Another example of this would be the Rabbinic decree not to sound the shofar when Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat. The rabbis were worried that one may come to violate the Shabbat, so they decreed that the shofar not be blown even though there is a Biblical obligation to sound it.

Rava provides an alternate explanation. He says that the rabbis are using the principle known as hefker beit din hefker (property made ownerless by court is considered ownerless.) In simple terms, the court has the ability to transfer property from one individual to another. In our case, since on a Biblical level the borrower must still repay the money, the rabbis allocated these funds back to the borrower, thus absolving him of the obligation to pay.

A brief recap: Hillel instituted pruzbul. The Talmud wondered how it is possible, since this circumvents a Biblical obligation. The Talmud suggested that when Hillel lived, there was no longer a Biblical Shemitah that absolves loans, merely a Rabbinic obligation. The Talmud flips this on its head by asking how the rabbis have the power to institute a Rabbinic version of loan abrogation, if repayment is required on a Biblical level. For this, we have two solutions, one supplied by Abaye and the other by Rava.

In Rashi's understanding of Rava’s suggestion, we see something very interesting. The intuitive way to understand Rava is (as we articulated) that he is responding to the second question of the Talmud, which was “How can the rabbis institute their version of loan forgiveness when it goes against the Biblical obligation to repay a loan?” Rashi, however, understands Rava to be responding to the initial difficulty, raised by the Talmud which was, “How is pruzbul effective against a Biblical injunction?”11

According to Rashi, Rava does not agree to Abaye’s resolution to this first difficulty that we are referring only to Rabbinic Shemitah because this is only pertinent to Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s view.12

Rava believes that even according to the Sages—who we quoted above as arguing with Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi that the abrogation of loans is of a Biblical nature, even today—pruzbul is effective even against a Biblical forgiveness of loans. This works because of the principle of hefker beit din hefker, which gives the Rabbis the capacity to allocate funds as they see fit, even if Biblically they’d belong to someone else.13

Practical Application

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, in a talk on Shabbat Parshat Emor 5749 (1989), explored the deeper meaning of pruzbul. It is clear that pruzbul was instituted to prevent people from violating the warning in the Torah: “Beware, lest there be in your heart an unfaithful thought, saying, ‘The seventh year, the year of release has approached,’ and you will begrudge your needy brother and not give him, and he will cry out to the L‑rd against you, and it will be a sin to you.”14 This became necessary during the time of Hillel when people became more lax in their observance. It sounds very much like pruzbul is some kind of diminishment of Torah law.15 The truth is, explains the Rebbe, the opposite is true. Pruzbul is a way of strengthening the Biblical law which forbade people from withholding money as the seventh year approached. Far from diluting the Torah law, pruzbul in fact strengthens it.16