How Does a Heter Iska Work?

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Andy Gross, a businessman who is proud that he is now observing mitzvos, is on time for his appointment. After a brief greeting, I ask him what brings him to my office on this beautiful morning.

“I recently learned that even though the Torah prohibits paying or receiving interest, there is something called a heter iska that legalizes it. How can we legitimize something that the Torah expressly prohibits?”

Indeed, Andy’s question is both insightful and important, and deserves a thorough explanation. Why don’t you join us!

I noted that this week’s parsha discusses the prohibition of interest:

Do not collect interest from him, for you shall fear Hashem and allow your brother to live. Therefore, do not provide him money with interest (Chapter 25:36- 37).

This verse teaches three different mitzvos:

1. Do not collect interest from him. This entails a prohibition on the lender against collecting interest (Bava Metzia 75b).

2. Allow your brother to live. From the words allow your brother to live we derive a positive commandment that one who did collect interest is required to return it (Bava Metzia 62a).

3. Do not provide him money with interest prohibits creating a loan that involves interest, even if the lender never collects it (Bava Metzia 62a). A lender who later collects the interest also violates the first prohibition, and if he subsequently refuses to return it, he violates the positive commandment.

Not only does the lender violate the prohibition against ribbis, but also the borrower, the witnesses, the broker, the co-signer, the scribe who writes up the loan document (Mishnah Bava Metzia 75b), the notary public who notarizes it, and possibly even the attorney who drafts a document that includes provisions for ribbis all violate the laws of ribbis (Bris Yehudah 1:6). Thus, anyone causing the loan to be either finalized or collected violates the Torah’s law.

“The halachos of ribbis are quite complex,” I told Andy. “From my experience, even seasoned Torah scholars sometimes mistakenly violate the prohibition of ribbis. For example, having a margin account at a Jewish owned brokerage, charging a Jewish customer for late payment, or borrowing off someone else’s credit line usually entail violations of ribbis. I even know of Torah institutions that ‘borrow’ the use of someone’s credit card in order to meet their payroll, intending to gradually pay back the interest charges.”

“Why does the last case involve ribbis?” inquired an inquisitive Andy.

“Let me present a case where I was involved. A Torah institution was behind on its payroll, and had no one available from whom to borrow money. The director asked a backer of the institution if the institution could borrow money through his bank credit line.”

“I still do not see any ribbis problem here” replied Andy, “just a chesed that costs him nothing.”

“To whom did the bank lend money?” I asked Andy.

“As far as they are concerned, they are lending money to the backer, since it was his credit line.”

“So from whom did the institution borrow? The bank did not lend to them. Doesn’t this mean that really two loans have taken place: one from the bank to Mr. Chesed, and another from him to the institution? The loan from the bank incurs interest charges that Mr. Chesed is obligated to pay. Who is paying those charges?”

“It would only be fair for the institution to pay them,” responded Andy.

“However, if the institution pays those charges, they are in effect paying more money to Mr. Chesed than they borrowed from him since they are also paying his debt to the bank. This violates ribbis. The fact that the institution pays the bank directly does not mitigate the problem (see Gemara Bava Metzia 71b).”

Andy was noticeably stunned. “I have always thought of interest as a prohibition against usury – or taking advantage of a desperate borrower. Here the ‘usurer’ did not even lend any money, and thought he was doing a tremendous chesed for tzedakah; he did not realize that his assistance caused both of them to violate a serious prohibition!”

“What is even more tragic,” I continued, “is that one can convert most of these prohibited transactions into a heter iska that is perfectly permitted.

WHAT IS A HETER ISKA?

“A heter iska is a halachically approved way of restructuring a loan or debt so that it becomes an investment instead of a loan. This presumes that the investor assumes some element of risk should the business fail, which is one basic difference between an investment and a loan. An investor could potentially lose money, whereas a borrower always remains responsible to pay.

“One is permitted to create a heter iska even when the goal of both parties is only to find a kosher way of creating a transaction that is very similar to an interest- bearing loan (Terumas HaDeshen #302). The words heter iska mean exactly that: performing an allowable business deal that is similar to a prohibited transaction. As we will see, the structure must still allow for an element of risk and loss as accepted by halacha, otherwise it fails the test of being an investment.

“There are several ways of structuring a heter iska, and indeed different situations may call for different types of heter iska. In order to explain how a basic heter iska operates, I must first explain an investment that involve no ribbis, so that we can understand how a heter iska was developed. For the balance of this article, we will no longer refer to “borrowers” and “lenders.” Instead, I will refer to a “managing partner” or “manager” and an “investor.”

Andy interrupts my monologue. “Was heter iska used in earlier generations?”

THE EARLIEST HETER ISKA

“The concept of heter iska is hundreds of years old. The earliest heter iska of which I am aware is suggested by the Terumas HaDeshen (1390- 1460). His case involves Reuven, who wishes to invest in interest-bearing loans to gentile customers, but does not want to take any risk. Shimon, who is an experienced broker of such loans, is willing to take the risk in return for some of the profit on Reuven’s money.

“Reuven wants a guarantee that he will receive back all his capital regardless of what actually happens in the business venture. Essentially, this means that Shimon is borrowing money from Reuven and then lending it out to the gentiles; this would result in a straightforward Torah prohibition of ribbis, since Shimon is paying Reuven a return on the loan. Is there any way that Reuven and Shimon can structure the deal without violating the Torah’s prohibitions against paying and receiving interest?”

At this point, Andy exclaims: “Either this is a loan, and Reuven’s money is protected, or it is an investment, and it is not. How can Reuven have his cake and eat it too!”

“Actually, all the attempts at creating heter iska are attempts to find a balance whereby the investor is fairly secure that his assets are safe, and yet can generate profit.

PIKADON – INVESTING

“Let me explain how a heter iska accomplishes both these goals, by developing a case: Mr. Sweat has a business idea, but he lacks the capital to implement it. He approaches Mr. Bucks for investment capital. If Bucks has sufficient confidence in Sweat’s acumen to build a business, he might decide to invest even without knowing any details about it in the hope that Sweat’s idea will provide handsome profits. None of this involves any ribbis issues since there is no loan and no one is paying to use the other person’s capital. This business venture is called a pikadon.

GUARANTEEING THE INVESTMENT

“Your model is highly theoretical,” Andy points out, “since it assumes that Mr. Bucks invests without much assurance. Few people I know would entrust someone with their money without some type of guarantee.”

“You have hit on a key point – let us see how halacha deals with this. Whenever an investor entrusts someone with funds, the Torah permits him to demand an oath afterwards that the manager was not negligent. Therefore, Bucks may insist that Sweat swears an oath that he was not negligent with the money and also that he reported exactly how much money Bucks is due. The heter iska agreement may even require that Sweat swears this oath by using G-d’s name and while holding a Sefer Torah in front of the entire congregation.”

“That should certainly get Mr. Sweat to sweat,” quipped Andy. “But then again, assuming Mr. Sweat is a frum Jew, is he going to want to swear any oath at all?”

“That is exactly the point that secures Bucks’ bucks, since observant people would rather pay a substantial sum of money to avoid swearing an oath. The heter iska specifies that the manager has the option of swearing the oath and paying only what the investor is entitled. However, the manager has the option of substituting an agreed upon payment for the oath. Since observant Jews would rather pay the fixed return rather than swear an oath, we accomplish that the investor is reasonably secure, although no loan and no ribbis transpired. The result is not a loan, but a cleverly structured investment.”

After waiting a few seconds and absorbing what he just learned, Andy continued:

“Is there anything else I need to know about a heter iska before I use one?”

“I need to explain one other very important detail that people often, unfortunately, overlook. Most forms of heter iska state that the investor paid the manager a specific sum of money, say one dollar, for his time involved in the business venture. It is vitally important that this dollar be actually paid; otherwise there is a ribbis prohibition involved. Yet I know that many people overlook this requirement and do not understand its importance.”

“Could you explain why this is important?”

STANDARD ISKA – A SILENT PARTNERSHIP

“The standard heter iska assumes that the arrangement is half loan and half pikadon. This means that if Mr. Bucks invests $100,000 with Mr. Sweat to open a business, Mr. Bucks and Mr. Sweat become partners in the business because half of the amount is now a $50,000 loan that Mr. Sweat must eventually repay, and the other half is a $50,000 outlay that Mr. Bucks has now invested in a business that Mr. Sweat owns or intends to open. Bucks may receive no profit on the $50,000 loan he extended — if he does, it is prohibited ribbis. However, he may receive as much profit on the investment part of the portfolio as is generated by half the business. As a result, Mr. Bucks and Mr. Sweat are both 50% partners in the business.

RECEIVING PROFIT FROM THE LOAN

“However, there is an interesting problem that we must resolve. Bucks invested a sum with Sweat, for which he received a profit, and he also loaned Sweat money, for which he may not receive any profit. However, the return on the investment was realized only because Mr. Sweat is investing his know how and labor to generate profit for the partnership – know how and labor that Bucks did not pay for. Why is this investment of services not considered payment for Mr. Bucks’ loan, and therefore a ribbis problem?

“Indeed this concern is raised by the Gemara, which presents two methods to resolve the problem.

“The first method is that the investor pays the manager a certain amount for his expertise and effort. As long as both parties agree in advance, we are unconcerned how little (or much) this amount is (Bava Metzia 68b). However, there must be an amount, and it must be actually paid. Even if they agree to a sum as paltry as one dollar, this is an acceptable arrangement, similar to Michael Bloomberg’s accepting one dollar as salary to be mayor of New York.”

“I now understand,” interjected Andy, “why it is so important that this amount be actually paid. If Mr. Sweat receives no compensation for his hard work on behalf of Mr. Bucks’ investment, it demonstrates that he was working because he received a loan, which would be prohibited as ribbis.”

“Precisely,” I replied. “However, there is another way to structure the heter iska so that this is not a problem. This is by having the profit and loss percentages vary. This means that if the business profits, the managing partner makes a larger part of the profit than he loses if there is a loss. For example, in the original deal, let us assume that our silent and managing partners will divide the profits, but in case of loss, our manager is responsible to pay only $30,000. This means that Sweat borrowed only $30,000 and therefore owns only 30% of the business, which should entitle him to only 30% of the profits. The extra 20% of the profits he receives is his salary for managing the business. He is therefore being paid a percentage of Bucks’ profits for his efforts, similar to the way a money manager or financial consultant is often compensated by receiving a percentage of the profits on the funds he manages.

“The heter iska I have seen used by the Jewish owned banks in Israel includes this method. The bank invests 45% in a “business” managed by the mortgage borrower, but the borrower is entitled to 50% of the profits. Thus, he is “paid” five per cent of the bank’s profits for his services in managing the investment.”

“Can you explain to me how the Terumas HaDeshen’s money lender would use a heter iska?” inquired Andy.

“Actually, his heter iska varied slightly from what we use today. Using today’s accepted heter iska, Shimon the manager accepts the money with the understanding that he is borrowing part and managing the balance for Reuven. He is compensated for his efforts according to one of the approaches mentioned above, and agrees in advance to divide the profits. He also agrees that he will swear an oath guaranteeing that he was not negligent in his responsibilities, and the two parties agree that if he subsequently chooses to pay Reuven a certain amount he is absolved of swearing the oath. Thus, Reuven’s return is not interest on a loan, but the amount Shimon had agreed to pay rather than swear how much he actually owes Reuven.

“This approach has been accepted by thousands of halachic authorities as a valid method of receiving a return on one’s investment that looks like interest but is not. The Chofetz Chayim notes that if someone can lend money without compensation, he should certainly do so and not utilize a heter iska, because this is the mitzvah of performing chesed (Ahavas Chesed 2:15). Heter iska is meant for investment situations, and should ideally be limited to them.

“I would like to close by sharing with you a thought from Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch about the reason why the Torah prohibited interest. He notes that if the Torah considered charging interest to be inherently immoral, it would have banned charging interest from non-Jews, and also would have prohibited only the lender and not the borrower. Rather, Rav Hirsch notes, the Torah’s prohibition is to demonstrate that the capital we receive from Hashem is so that we donate tzedakah and provide loans, and thereby fulfill our share in building and maintaining a Torah community. The Torah’s goal in banning the use of capital for interest-paying loans is to direct excess funds to chesed and tzedakah.”

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