The Kosher Way to Collect a Loan
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.
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).
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.
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.”