Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Re’eh 5770/ August 7, 2010

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



Must we take interest from Gentiles?

Dr. Shalem Yahalom

Department of Talmud

Maimonides and Nahmanides are both considered outstanding creative Jewish thinkers.   But Maimonides the rationalist and Nahmanides the mystic had different views of the world, and each of them founded a school opposed to that of the other. They differed with one another on many halakhic questions, but collided head-on in their counting of the commandments.  Maimonides’ point of departure assumed 613 commandments to be a binding number.  To that end he wrote Sefer ha-Mitzvot, in which he outlined the principles of categorization for enumerating the commandments and determined the commandments that should be included in this list.  Nahmanides challenged the importance of the number 613, [1] and as was the custom in the Middle Ages, wrote a work in which he challenged Sefer ha-Mitzvot.

One of the important points of controversy between Maimonides and Nahmanides in enumerating the commandments concerned the way one should treat “a negative injunction stemming from an affirmative rule” – a prohibition which is implied by an affirmative instruction.  The Talmud rules:   “A negative injunction stemming from an affirmative rule is like an affirmative rule” (Yevamot 54b).  This led Maimonides to conclude that an negative injunction of this sort should be listed as an affirmative commandment.  According to his system, including a commandment in the list of affirmative commands denoted a halakhic category, not necessarily indicative of the nature of the command.  In his critique, Nahmanides maintained that only commands that led to affirmative action should be included in the list of affirmative commandments:

The Rabbi [Maimonides] enumerated in his compilation of 248 affirmative commandments those negative injunctions that stem from an affirmative rule, which by [talmudic] tradition are treated as a affirmative commands … but Ba`al ha-Halakhot [R. Shimon Kayara, acronym BaHaG, author of Halakhot Gedolot, a Geonic work listing all the commandments] did not list them because they do not call for taking action. [2]

Nahmanides also contended with Maimonides over the definition of a command as “a negative injunction stemming from an affirmative rule.”  This debate finds expression in the interpretation given the verse in this week’s reading, “[You may] dun the foreigner, but you must remit whatever is due you from your kinsmen” (Deut. 15:3), and the verse from Parashat Ki-Tetze, “[but you may] deduct interest from loans to foreigners.  Do not deduct interest from loans to your countrymen” (Deut. 23:21).   Maimonides viewed these verses as a regular binding requirement and listed them with the affirmative commandments in Sefer ha-Mitzvot.   He held that the Torah contains verses that oblige Jews to lend to non-Jews for interest and to make sure the debt is paid up:

 Commandment 142 orders us to dun the gentile and force him to pay up his debt,… as the Almighty said, “dun the foreigner,” which Sifre interprets:  “Dunning the foreigner is a positive commandment” (142);  the 198th commandment is to demand interest from the gentile, and then we may lend to him, to the point that we do not do him good and do not help him, but rather harm him, … as He said, “deduct interest from loans to foreigners,” which according to the accepted interpretation is a positive commandment, as Sifre says:  “charging the gentile interest is a positive command.” [3]

Nahmanides, however, maintained that the main thrust of the commandment in this week’s reading is only that we not charge interest to Jews, whereas lending for interest to gentiles is permissible but not required:

3. Of an alien tigos (thou mayest exact it): “This constitutes a positive commandment.” This is Rashi’s language quoting the Sifre (Deut. 113). The meaning thereof is that there is a positive commandment with respect to you brother [that you are not to exact the debt from him after it was cancelled by the Sabbatical year, the reason being as follows:] of an ‘alien’ thou mayest exact it, but not from your brother. . . [4]

It should be stressed that aside from the theoretical halakhic aspect, Nahmanides’ reservation apparently also reflected a different environment from that in which Maimonides lived.  The Moslem world, unlike the Christian, was not characterized by extreme hostility towards Jews who charged interest on loans.  According to the laws of Islam, interest is forbidden, but credit extended by Jews was considered a legitimate commercial activity.   Perhaps living under Moslem rule enabled Maimonides to argue that we are positively commanded to charge interest on loans to gentiles. [5]   In Gerona, where Nahmanides lived, laws were legislated against Jews charging interest, [6] and therefore Nahmanides had to refrain from making such claims. [7]   Pressure from his surroundings led him to formulate a moral justification for the permission given Jews to charge interest on loans to their gentile neighbors:

Scripture… explained here (verse 21) that a heathen’s interest is permissible. This he did not mention with reference to robbery and theft, as the Rabbis have said, “Theft from a heathen is forbidden”( Bava Kama 113b). But borrowing for interest, which is agreed a upon by both parties and is done voluntarily, was forbidden [by the Torah] only because of brotherliness and kindness, as He commanded, and thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself (Lv. 19:18)…therefore He said here, that the Eternal thy G-d may bless thee (verse 21), for it is an act of mercy and compassion that one does for his brother by lending him without interest. [8]

The pressure of outer forces made its mark.   While Nahmanides viewed lending to gentiles for interest as a neutral action, his disciples viewed it in a negative light and argued that it was a rabbinic obligation and requisite measure of kindness not to lend to gentiles for interest. [9]


[1] I. Twersky, Introduction to the Code of Maimonides ( Mishneh Torah),  New Haven : Yale University Press, 1980, p. 24, note 37; M. Halbertal, Al Derekh ha-Emet:  H- Ramban ve-Yetziratah shel Masoret, Jerusalem 2006, p. 22, note 15.

[2] Sefer ha-Mitzvot la- Rambam ve-Hasagot ha- Ramban, sixth section, H. D. Chavel ed., Jerusalem 1981, p. 80.  Also cf.:  Mitzvat Aseh, 38, p. 175.  Nahmanides drew this assumption from Rabad’s critique of the list of commandments in the beginning of the Mishneh Torah:   “Regarding swearing by His name … even though it is not counted in the list it serves as a warning not to swear by other gods.  Perhaps he said this on the grounds that a negative injunction deriving from an affirmative rule is a positive commandment” (pos. com. 7).  Also cf. Hasagot ha- Ramban, pos. com. 7, pp. 164-165.   For another example, cf. Hasagot ha-Rabad, pos. com. 146 = Hasagot ha-Ramban, section 1, p. 24.

[3] Sefer ha-Mitzvot la-Rambam , pp. 207, 230.

[4] Ramban, Commentary on the Torah, Deuteronomy, trans. C.B. Chavel, New York: Shilo, 1976, Deut. 15:3, p. 181-82.

H. D. Chavel ed., Jerusalem 1980, p. 413.  Also cf. Sefer ha-Mitzvot, Hasagot ha-Ramban, section 6, p. 81.   Here, too, Nahmanides followed Rabad.   Cf. Hasagot ha-Rabad, Minyan ha-Mitzvot, pos. com. 198.  Hilkhot Malveh ve-Loveh , 5.1.

[5] M. R. Cohen, Be-Tzel ha-Sahar ve-ha-Tzlav:  Ha-Yehudim bi-Yemei ha-Beinayim, Haifa 2001, pp. 78, 137, 139-146, 157-160, 165-166, 288.   It should be noted that in a later era Maimonides’ position helped  fuel anti-Semitic propaganda.  Cf. Y. Rosenthal, Mehkarim u-Mekorot, Jerusalem 1967, p. 165, note 50.

[6] Y. Baer, A History of the Jews in Christian Spain, Philadelphia 1961, Vol. I, pp. 147-150.

[7] Biblical exegetes in Christian Europe took care not to claim that the verse, “You may deduct interest on loans to foreigners” (Deut. 23:21) meant one must charge interest on loans to non-Jews.  See the commentaries of Rashi and R. Joseph Bekhor-Shor on this verse.  The statement, “you may deduct interest on loans to foreigners,” is discussed in Christian exegesis. See S. Simonsohn, The Apostolic See and the Jews, Toronto: Pontificial Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1991, "Interest and Usury," p. 188.


[8] Ramban, Commentary, Deut. 23:20,   p. 294. Nahmanides drew this idea from Radak’s commentary on Psalms (15:5).  Radak concludes his remarks by saying explicitly, “I have gone into length here in order to provide you an answer to the Christians.”

[9] The attitude of the rabbis of Catalonia (northern Spain) towards charging interest on loans to non-Jews evolved through the ages.   The Talmud, Tractate Bava Metzia, wrestles with the question of placing restrictions on loans to non-Jews.  Rav Hiyya claimed that permission to lend to a non-Jew is limited to that which is required for basic survival alone.  Ravina was of the opinion that the prohibition against lending was intended to prevent the influence of non-Jews on Jews, and therefore only Jewish scholars who are immune to outside influence could make loans.  According to Rav Huna, answering Rav Nahman, loans to Jews were to be given preference over loans to gentiles, notwithstanding the loss of interest entailed; but the act of lending itself was by all means permitted:  “One makes loans to them and borrows from them for interest…  Rav Hiyya son of Rav Huna said only insofar as is necessary for him to live.  Ravina said this is as far as regards disciples of the Sages.  Why did the Sages rule thus?   Lest he learn from his [the gentile’s] deeds; but since a disciple of the Sages will not learn from his deeds, …   [When it is a question of giving a loan] to one of your own people or to a gentile, your own people take precedence…   Rav Nahman said, citing Rav Huna, [one should give such preference] even though [one lends] to the gentile for interest and to a Jew for free” (Bava Metzia 70b-71a).  Nahmanides sided with the view that denies any rabbinic prohibition against lending to gentiles and, in view of the opinions that placed restrictions on loaning, maintained that the various approaches should be united in a lenient direction:  “This means that the halakhah is according to the latter, in which Rav Huna learns that one can lend to a gentile for interest, but to a Jew for free.  We do not see it according to the view of the Rabbis who ruled lest he learn from their actions, neither as regards a disciple nor as regards commonfolk  We follow both the views of Rav Hiyya and Ravina, interpreting their views leniently; and for his livelihood any person may [make loans], and disciples of the rabbis may even wax rich thereby, for I find no grounds for a counter-argument; and everything of the like is a prohibition of the Rabbis, so and we take the lenient approach and whoever would interpret this strictly, the burden of proof is on him” (Nahmanides, Bava Metzia 70b, s.v. mai).    Contrary to this lenient approach, his disciple Rashba maintained, according to the edition Talmudic commentary which he had before him, that Nahmanides viewed it as an act of especial piety to refrain from lending to gentiles.   According to his edition, the above quote of Nahmanides ended with the words, “and whoever would interpret this strictly, may he be blessed.”  The view that refraining from making loans was an act of piety was clearly formulated by Ritba, writing in the name of his teacher:  “The correct view is that it [lending] is not actually forbidden, neither by the Torah nor by the Rabbis, but that it is a mark of especial piety, as it is said, … one may not lend to gentiles for interest, … according to my teacher, ðø"å (Ritba, Megilla 28a, s.v. tete).