Should I write off a debt?

January 10, 2008
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QUESTION: Several years ago I loaned a relative a considerable amount of money. Not only has he not repaid me but he has not said a word to me about it or shown the slightest gratitude. Should I simply write off the debt, especially as it is now a shmittah (sabbatical) year?

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is rabbi at Borehamwood and Elstree United Synagogue.

Shmittah is the seventh and final year of the biblical agricultural cycle during which the land of Israel must lie fallow. Another feature of shmittah is that during this period creditors are instructed to release the loans they made to their debtors (Deuteronomy 15:2).

The rabbinic consensus is that today there is no biblical imperative to cancel debts on shmittah. According to some authorities, there is nonetheless a rabbinic prohibition against collecting debts. Others deny that there is even a rabbinic prohibition and so practically there is nothing to stop a creditor from collecting his debts today (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 67:1).

Even if you were to take the stringent view, you would still be permitted to collect your debts from your relative as the prohibition only kicks in at the very end of the shmittah year just before Rosh Hashanah (ibid 67:30). As we are presently in the Hebrew month of Shevat, you technically still have close to nine months to collect your debt.

It is difficult for me to advise you without knowing your financial circumstances or those of you or your relative. While you are certainly within your rights to demand back your generous loan, you must also consider your debtor’s position. Why might it be that he has not acknowledged your loan? What is his financial situation like?

It might be that he is a brazen ingrate but it might also be that he has fallen on hard times and is ashamed to admit it. If it is the latter, you might consider extending the period of repayment or even writing off part of the loan as an extreme act of tzedakah.

Whatever you choose to do, I think it is best for you to be upfront with your relative so that he understands what the parameters are. In this way, if he is dishonest, you will have confronted him. If, on the other hand, he is simply ashamed of his inability to repay the loan, you will hopefully have eased his burden by forging a realistic and dignified way forward.

The one thing I would strongly discourage you from doing is maintaining the status quo. This is only likely to exacerbate the problem, fostering resentment, guilt and unrealistic expectations.

 

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

There is nothing more galling than ingratitude. Even if you do something purely for its own sake and without any expectation of praise, it is still nice to be thanked — it means your act has been both noticed and appreciated.

Perhaps, in your case, there is the added pain that it makes you wonder whether you were foolish to give the loan in the first place, either because you were taken advantage of, or because that person simply did not deserve such help. However, his subsequent behaviour should not be allowed to detract from your original kindness, and it would be important not to let it sour your view of yourself or of others.

As for practicalities, a loan carries the clear expectation of repayment. It sounds as if no date was specified, but that does not negate his obligation. If the assumption was that he would do so when he was in better financial health, then it would be natural for him to let you know periodically how he was progressing, if only to say: “I’m not there yet, so can we keep the loan going for a while.” Of course, he may feel embarrassed at having to elongate the loan, but that does not excuse never mentioning it, and certainly does not make it evaporate.

The biblical idea of the shmittah was, indeed, a time of releasing debts every seventh year, although it proved so problematic that Hillel reformed it 2,000 years ago.

Unless it was written into any contract you made, then I suspect your relative is not relying on it to escape repayment.

There is also the question of whether it is responsible to let him off without a single word about it, like allowing a spoilt child to take sweets from a shop and walk away without paying. The store-keeper may shrug his shoulders, but does that really help the child?

Another factor is your relationship with him. Once trusting, now spoilt — how can you try to rebuild the original bond you had without tackling the massive unspoken issue that divides you? And how does he regard you? Is he fearful that at any moment you might issue a summons, or resentful over what he perceives is your silent hold over him? You need to bring it all out into the open and have a frank discussion.

    Last updated: 12:29pm, September 22 2008

    COMMENTS

    Joe

    Fri, 10/10/2008 - 11:12

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    Shmitta today is probably Rabbinic and not a Torah mitzvah and to cover any doubts we have a prozbul allowing debts to be collected, lest lenders refuse to lend. The only way to know what's on his mnd is to ask him. Most communities have a gemach system for borrowing money by providing guarantors in case the repayment cheques bounce.