One of the individuals the Shulchan Aruch harshly criticizes is one who charges interest on a monetary loan extended to a fellow Jew. He is described as a Kofeir, a heretic who denies Hashem. (Yoreh Deah 160:2, based on the Gemara (Bava Metzia 71a). See also Midrash Shemot Rabbah 31:6 for other strong comments directed by Chazal against such a person). The question is why this transgression, discussed in our Parashah (VaYikra 25:35-38), is indeed considered such a terrible one. Charging interest on a loan does not appear to be an inherently immoral or indecent act; it occurs very frequently in the finance world, as many banks’ and lending institutions’ profit comes from the interest collected on business or personal loans. Those involved in such loans are generally not viewed as unethical or unscrupulous people, and certainly not as heretics.
It may be further noted that no objection is ever raised when the owner of any item charges rent for the use of his item. If, for example, one rents out his car for a month, he receives it back at the end of the specified time with a payment for the rental. Nobody considers the car owner to be immoral or unethical for collecting this money; on the contrary, it is understood that he is entitled to receive some sort of compensation for the use of his car. Why, then, do we not apply the same to lending money? If one lends money to somebody for a month, he should be allowed to receive additional payment as compensation for using his money. It appears that the interest payment could be looked at as nothing more than a rental fee.
The Avnei Neizer, in a section of a lengthy treatise on the laws of interest entitled Kuntres Berit Achim printed in his collection of Teshuvot (Yoreh De’ah 159:3), points out that the prohibition against charging interest is closely connected to the Mitzvah of lending money (see Shemot 22:24 and Rashi there). While it may certainly be an act of Chesed to let someone borrow a tie, a baseball glove, a lawnmower, or even a car, there is no specific Mitzvah to lend such items. Theoretically, there would be nothing wrong with charging rent for these kinds of items should one not want to lend them out gratis. However, there is a specific Mitzvah to lend money, and just as one is not permitted to accept payment for the performance of any other Mitzvah in the Torah, one may not accept payment for performing the Mitzvah of lending money to someone in need. In other words, if the lender would be allowed to collect the interest payment on the loan together with the principle, he would be making money on the performance of a Mitzvah, which is inappropriate.
Rav Yochanan Zweig, a Rosh Yeshiva and Rosh Kollel in Miami Beach, suggests a different approach. When one lends somebody any tangible item, that item clearly remains the property of the lender even though it is in the borrower’s possession at the moment. It is the lender’s tie, baseball glove, lawnmower, or car, and not the borrower’s; the borrower simply enjoys the right to use the item. When the specified time is up, the borrower must thus return that very item, and the money he gives the lender at that point in addition is payment for the usage of the item. This is not the case, however, with money. When one lends money to someone, the money becomes the property of the borrower, and is no longer the lender’s money. The borrower does not have to return that particular money (i.e., those very same coins or bills) to the lender at the appointed time, and he may do whatever he pleases with that money. It’s his money; he simply has a debt which requires him to eventually repay that amount to the lender. If the borrower would be obligated to pay interest, he would then, in effect, be paying for the use of something which belongs to him! The lender, similarly, would be collecting money from someone who is using something of his own. This would be a degrading and belittling experience for the borrower, and would impinge on his human dignity. Such conduct is thus prohibited.
It is noteworthy that one of the words used in the Pasuk for interest is “Neshech,” which relates to the Hebrew word for biting. Charging somebody money for using something that already belongs to him takes a bite out of that person’s dignity, and deprives him of some of his sense of self-worth. Perhaps this idea also explains the colloquial reference to those who collect exorbitant interest from borrowers as “loan sharks.” This explanation may also explain why Pesukim sat that the borrower and the lender are brothers, making it especially improper for one to “bite” the other and cheapen his dignity. Finally, this may also connect these Pesukim to those that immediately follow, which instruct a master not to treat his Jewish slave in a degrading manner: a general theme of this Torah section, then, is that one Jew may never “lord” over another and degrade them. As Seforno noted, Hashem is the God of both parties in a business relationship, so the way the parties treat each other must always reflect that fact. The need for respect towards one another is a crucial ideal, prominent in Judaism. Klal Yisrael is now experiencing Sefirat HaOmer, in which we have taken upon ourselves to follow some mourning stringencies as a remembrance to the death of the students of Rabbi Akiva. The Gemara (Mesechet Yevamot 62b) tells us that Rabbi Akiva’s twenty-four thousand students were killed because they did not have proper respect for one another. We can see the great power of degrading one another and not having proper respect as twenty-four thousand Talmidei Chachamim, some of the greatest Torah scholars of their time, were killed because of this transgression. This is a vital lesson to internalize, and hopefully, this lesson will bring us closer to bringing about the Mashiach, speedily and in our days.