As the shmittah year comes to a close, one of the most prominent charity organizations in Israel is observing a rare biblical commandment to nullify debts. Karmey Chesed, an organization which lends money to individuals who come from low income backgrounds, or who have fallen on hard times, will be enacting the biblical law to its full extent.
The observance of shmittah has several dimensions, one of which is the waiving of all outstanding debts, which is always done at the end of the shmittah year. In modern times, to help prevent economic difficulties, a halachic mechanism called pruzbul circumvents this loan amnesty. However, many rabbinic leaders believe that wherever one can follow the biblical rule, it is best to do so.
“The Torah demands that we maintain high moral standards, which should not be affected by changing times and changing economic circumstances,” said Rabbi Benjamin Lau, a prominent Orthodox rabbi in Jerusalem. Karmey Chesed has elected to follow this line of thinking, and is granting loan amnesty to all those to whom the organization has loaned money in the past seven years.
While granting loan amnesty was done in the times of the Bible, it is very uncommon in the modern era. However, as many of the people receiving help from Karmey Chesed may never be able to repay the loans that they have taken, Aryeh Weingarten, the Director of Karmey Chesed, is forgiving the debt.
A local rabbi from Beitar, where Weingarten lives and works, said that Weingarten is known for his generosity and philanthropy. “Aryeh’s whole life is dedicated to helping others. He has a fear of God and he helps all kinds of people, from all walks of life,” he said.
Weingarten had come to the rabbi and asked several questions about how his organization should observe the shmittah, particularly the rule of absolving debt. “Most people today are not aware of this commandment and most of those who are aware of it use a loophole to guarantee the loan is paid back after the end of the shmittah year. However, Aryeh has taken the higher road,” said the rabbi.
He added that Karmey Chesed is embodying biblical values, explaining, “While it is possible to use the loophole, it is also vitally important to go back to our biblical roots, and to really act with mercy and loving kindness towards those who are disadvantaged in the community, and that is what Karmey Chesed is doing.”
The laws of loan amnesty take effect at the end of the Jewish year, which falls on the evening of September 13 with the onset of the holiday of Rosh Hashanah.