Pruzbul’s Relevance in Our Times

We have reached the end of the shemitah year, the seventh year in the shemitah cycle. The most prevalent commandment associated with this time period is a prohibition of cultivating agricultural lands for the entirety of the year, as well as a variety of other agriculturally-related prohibitions. While there are a number of halachic principles that impact upon us as a result of this mitzvah, for the most part, other than those of us who are farmers, we have been able to go about our lives with limited disruption.

However, there is a related commandment associated with shemitah which gets far less attention – one which requires us to forgive any debts which are owed to us, effective the onset of the eighth year.  The social rationale for this particular mitzva is quite clear.  In ancient times when farming was the main source of income for a large percentage of the population, people would go into the end of the Shmita year in a state of financial distress.  To address that stress they would take out loans and many would be challenged to repay them.  The Torah looked upon these people with compassion and commanded that those debts be forgiven so that everyone could start the new year on equal footing and without debts hanging over them.

Today, both the agricultural and financial commandments surrounding Shmita are viewed by almost all authorities as rabbinic commandments but it is important to understand the deeper meaning behind them and recognize that there are integral messages for our own lives.

More than 2,000 years ago, the great scholar Hillel recognized that the original social purpose of the mitzva explained above was actually backfiring.  Rather than create a sense of social equality and protecting people from financial ruin, it created a situation where lenders were refraining from loaning to the poor and impoverished because they feared that come the end of the Shmita year they would never be able to recover their debts.

In his wisdom, and based on the sources, it was decided that if those debts were transferred out of the hands of the individual and into the hands of the rabbinical courts, they are not forgiven and would still need to be repaid.

This is the basis for the concept of “Pruzbul” – a process transferring the debts into the realm of the court.

Today, the tradition of pruzbul remains relevant as we approach the end of this year and it is commendable and prudent to share in this process so as to ensure any funds owed to us remain in effect next year.

But beyond the halachic or procedural aspects of this tradition, perhaps even more importantly is the reminder that there remain within our society countless people for whom repaying debts is a deep and life-altering challenge.  In today’s world that might look like the family who struggles to pay their electricity or credit card bills every month – and the financial realities of our times make it that those challenges are only increasing.

For this reason, after one performs the Pruzbul, one should still “forgive” some debt that is owed to them and choose to allocate those funds to others in need.

This year Tzohar is providing people with the chance to perform this tradition via a shaliach (messenger) who will represent anyone who signs up ONLINE.  This ensures that you can embrace this mitzva without needing to find a rabbinic court.  We encourage you to join us in recognizing the continued relevance of this rite, characterized by both halacha and compassion, and in so doing we should all be blessed with a new year of caring for others, good health and happiness for ourselves and our families.

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About the Author
Rabbi David Stav is the Chief Rabbi of the City of Shoham, Founder & Chairman of the Tzohar Rabbinical Organization.
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