How Does a Heter Iska Work?

clip_image002

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.”

The Kosher Way to Collect a Loan

clip_image002

This article was published originally in the American edition of Yated Neeman.

Although it is a very big mitzvah to lend money, some people are reluctant to do so because they know of loans that were hard to collect. Must I lend someone money if I am not sure it will ever be repaid? What can I do if I loaned money to someone who seemed very honest and sincere, but now that it comes time to repay, he informs me that he is penniless? What may I do and what may I not do to collect my money? How can I guarantee that I get my money back?

Our goal in this article is to answer all these questions.

THE MITZVAH OF LENDING MONEY

The Torah requires us to lend money to a poor Jew who needs it (Rambam, Hilchos Malveh 1:1). This is stated in the pasuk, Im kesef talveh es ami, es he’ani imach, “When you lend money to my people, to the poor person among you” (Shmos 22:24). Chazal explain that the word “im” in this pasuk should not be translated as “If,” which implies that it is optional, but as a commandment, “When you lend…” (Mechilta). The poskim even discuss whether we recite a bracha on this mitzvah just as we recite one on tefillin, mezuzah and other mitzvos (Shu’t HaRashba #18). Although the halacha is that we do not recite a bracha, the mere question shows us the importance of the mitzvah of loaning money.

It is a greater mitzvah to lend someone money, which maintains his self-dignity, than it is to give him tzedakah, which is demeaning (Rambam, Hilchos Malveh 1:1). There is a special bracha from Hashem to people who lend money to the poor.

I should not become upset if a poor person wants to borrow money from me shortly after repaying a previous loan. My attitude should be similar to a storekeeper: “Do I become angry with a repeat customer? Do I feel that he is constantly bothering me?” Similarly, one should not turn people away without a loan, but rather view it as a new opportunity to perform a mitzvah and to receive extra brachos (Ahavas Chesed 1:7).

RICH VERSUS POOR

One should also lend money to wealthy people who need a loan, but this is not as great a mitzvah as lending to the poor.

FAMILY FIRST

Someone with limited available funds who has requests for loans from family members and non-family members, should lend to family members. Similarly, if he must choose whom to lend to, he should lend to a closer family member rather than to a more distant one.

WHAT IF I KNOW THE BORROWER IS A DEADBEAT?

I am not required to lend money if I know that the borrower squanders money and does not repay (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 97:4). It is better not to lend if I know that the borrower will probably not pay back.

THE RESPONSIBILITIES OF THE BORROWER

Someone who borrows money must make sure to pay it back. One may not borrow money that one does not think he will be able to repay. A person who squanders money and therefore does not repay his loans is called a rasha (Rambam Hilchos Malveh 1:3).

The borrower is required to pay his loans on time. If his loan is due and he cannot pay it, he is required to use his household items, if necessary, to pay his debt (Nesivos 86:2=?). Similarly, he may not make significant contributions to tzedakah (Sefer Chassidim #454). He may not purchase a lulav and esrog if he owes money that is due but should borrow one (see Pischei Teshuvah, Choshen Mishpat 97:8). He must use whatever money he has available to pay his debts.

It is strictly forbidden for the borrower to pretend that he does not have money to pay his debts or even to delay paying them if he does have the money, and it is similarly forbidden for him to hide money so that the lender cannot collect. All this is true even if the lender is very wealthy.

COLLECTING BAD DEBTS

Most people who borrow are meticulous to repay their debts and on time. However, it occasionally happens that someone who intended to pay back on time is faced with circumstances that make it difficult for him to repay.

THE PROHIBITION OF BEING A NOSHEH

There is a prohibition in the Torah, Lo sihyeh lo ki’nosheh, “Do not behave to him like a creditor.” Included in this prohibition is that it is forbidden to demand payment from a Jew when you know that he cannot pay (Rambam, Hilchos Malveh 1:2). The lender may not even stand in front of the borrower in a way that might embarrass or intimidate him (Gemara Bava Metzia 75b; Rambam, Hilchos Malveh 1:3).

However, if the lender knows that the borrower has resources that he does not want to sell, such as his house, his car, or his furniture, he may hassle the borrower since the borrower is halachically required to dispose of these properties in order to pay his loan. (See Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 97:23 for a list of what items he must sell to pay his debt.) Furthermore, the lender may sue in beis din for the rights to collect these items as payment.

(Technically, it is not the borrower’s responsibility to sell the items and bring the cash to the lender; he may give them to the lender as payment. The lender must then get a beis din or a panel of three experts to evaluate the property he has received. If he needs to hire experts to make the evaluation, the expenses are added to the debt. Of course, the lender and borrower can agree to whatever terms are mutually acceptable without involving expert evaluation, provided that no ribbis [interest] prohibition is created. The vast subject of ribbis is beyond the scope of this article.)

The borrower is often in an unenviable position. He owes money that he would like to pay, but he is overwhelmed with expenses and he simply does not earn enough money to pay all his creditors. He knows he could sell his house or his furniture to pay up, but he really does not want to do that to his family. He should try to appease the lender in whatever way he can – asking him for better terms or for a delay, and he should certainly try to find other sources of income and figure out how to trim his expenses. But he should realize that he is obligated even to sell his household goods to pay off his creditors. Someone who uses his money to purchase items that are not absolutely essential and does not pay back money that is overdue demonstrates a lack of understanding of the Torah’s priorities.

The lender may not enter the borrower’s house to seize collateral or payment. Some poskim contend that the lender may seize property that is not in the borrower’s house or on his person (see Pischei Choshen Vol. 1 pg. 96). There are poskim who contend that if the borrower has the means to pay but isn’t paying, the lender may enter the borrower’s house and take whatever he can (Shu’t Imrei Binah, Dinei Geviyas Chov Chapter 2; Pischei Choshen Vol. 1 pg. 100). One should not rely on this approach without first asking a shaylah.

If the borrower claims that he has absolutely nothing to pay with, the beis din can require him to swear an oath to that effect (Rambam, Hilchos Malveh 2:2).

A lender who feels that the borrower is hiding money or property may not take the law into his own hands, but may file a claim in beis din. If the lender feels that the borrower will not submit to beis din’s authority, he should ask the beis din for authorization to sue in secular courts, but it is forbidden for him to sue in secular court without approval from a beis din.

HOW CAN I GUARANTEE THAT I GET MY MONEY BACK?

It is unpleasant to be owed overdue loans. The lender is entitled to be repaid.

Is there a way that I can lend money and guarantee that I get in back?

First of all, the lender must make sure that he can prove the loan took place. This is actually a halacha forbidding lending out money without witnesses or other proof because of concern that this may cause the borrower to sin by denying that the loan exists (Gemara Bava Metzia 75b).

All of this is only protection against a borrower denying that he borrowed, which is fortunately a rare occurrence. What we want to explore are ways that the lender can fulfill his mitzvah of lending to a needy person, while making sure that the loan does not become permanent.

By the way, one may lend money to a poor person with the understanding that if the borrower defaults, the lender will subtract the sum from his tzedakah-maaser calculation (Pischei Choshen, Volume 1, p. 4).

CO-SIGNERS

The most common method used to guarantee the repayment of a loan is by having someone with reliable finances and reputation co-sign for the loan. In halacha, this person is called an areiv. In common practice, if the borrower defaults, the lender notifies the co-signer that he intends to collect the debt. Usually what happens is that when the lender calls the co-signer, suddenly the borrower shows up at the door with the money.

There are several types of areiv recognized by halacha. The most common type, a standard co-signer, is obligated to pay back the debt, but only after one has attempted to collect from the borrower. If the borrower does not pay because he has no cash, but he has property, the areiv can legitimately claim that he is not responsible to pay. The lender would need to summon the borrower and the areiv to beis din, (probably in separate dinei Torah) in order to begin payment procedures. Most people who lend money prefer to avoid the tediousness this involves.

One can avoid some of this problem by having the co-signer sign as an areiv kablan. This is a stronger type of co-signing, whereby the lender has the right to make the claim against the co-signer without suing the borrower first.

The primary difficulty with this approach is that it might make it difficult for the borrower to receive his loan, since many potential co-signers do not want to commit themselves to be an areiv kablan.

ANOTHER APPROACH

Is there another possibility whereby one can still provide the chesed to the potential borrower and yet guarantee that the money is returned?

Indeed there is. The Chofetz Chayim (Ahavas Chesed 1:8) suggests that if you are concerned that the proposed borrower may default, you can insist on receiving a collateral, a mashkon, to guarantee payment.

Having a loan collateralized is a fairly secure way of guaranteeing that the loan is repaid, but it is not completely hassle-free. There are three drawbacks that might result from using a mashkon to guarantee the repayment of the loan. They are:

1. Responsibility for the mashkon.

2. Evaluation of the mashkon.

3. Converting the mashkon into cash.

1. Responsibility for the mashkon.

When the lender receives the mashkon, he becomes responsible to take care of it. If it is lost or stolen, the value of the collateral will be subtracted from the loan (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 72:2). If the collateral is worth more than the loan, the lender might be required to compensate the borrower for the difference. (See dispute between Shulchan Aruch and Rama ibid.) The creditor is not responsible for the mashkon if it is lost and damaged because of something that halacha considers beyond his responsibility.

2. Evaluation of the mashkon.

When keeping the collateral to collect the debt, the mashkon must be evaluated by a panel of three experts before it can be sold (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 73:15 and Ketzos), or alternatively, sold with the involvement of beis din (Shach), to protect the borrower’s rights. Some creditors find this step tedious.

However, there are methods whereby one can use a mashkon to guarantee a loan and avoid having the mashkon evaluated afterwards.

When arranging the loan, the lender tells the borrower of the following condition: If the loan is not paid when due, the buyer agrees to rely on the lender’s evaluation of its worth (Pischei Choshen, Vol. 1 pg. 145).

An alternative way is for the lender to tell the borrower at the time of the loan: If you do not pay by the day the loan is due, then retroactively this is not a loan but a sale. The collateral becomes mine now for the value of the loan money. This is permitted even if the mashkon is worth far more than the loan without any violation of ribbis (prohibited charging of interest), since retroactively no loan took place but a sale (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 73:17).=

3. Converting the mashkon into cash.

At times, lenders have asked me for a method whereby they can be certain to get their money back, and I have suggested the collateral method. Sometimes I receive the following response: I don’t want to be bothered with selling the mashkon to get my money back. If I think the borrower is a risk, than I would rather not lend to him.

Do we have the same attitude towards other mitzvos we perform? Do we say that we only want to perform mitzvos when they are without complications? Certainly not! However, the yetzer hora convinces us that lending money is a good deed that I need only perform when it is convenient and when I feel like being benevolent, not when it is going to result in a hassle.

SHLEMIEL THE BORROWER

Nachman once came to me with the following shaylah:

Shlemiel used to borrow money from Nachman regularly, and although Shlemiel always paid back, he often did so long after the due date. Nachman wanted to know what he could do about this situation. He wanted to perform the tremendous mitzvah of lending money, but he wanted his money back in a reasonable time.

I suggested to Nachman that he tell Shlemiel that the loan was available, but only if Shlemiel produced a mashkon and agreed to the above conditions. Since my suggestion, Nachman has been zocheh to fulfill the mitzvah of lending money to Shlemiel many times and not once has a loan been late! Think of how many brachos Nachman has received from Hashem because he is willing to subject himself to the “hassle” of transporting the mashkon to a secure place and being willing to sell it should the need arise!

Why do people view loaning money as an optional “good deed” rather than as a commandment? The Chofetz Chayim (Ahavas Chesed 2:8)= raises this question and mentions several excuses people make to avoid lending money. After listing these reasons, the Chofetz Chayim proceeds to refute each one of them. Simply put, the answer to this question is the old Yiddish expression, Ven Kumt to Gelt, iz an andara velt, “When people deal with their money, they tend to deal with things totally differently.” Truthfully, people find it difficult to part with their money, even temporarily. This is precisely why one receives such immense reward for lending. As Chazal teach us, lifum tzaara agra, “the reward is according to the suffering.”

image_print