Living Alongside Your Brother: Of Usury, Triage, and Political Philosophy

One of the fundamental questions central to the current American political scene, a bitterly contested matter dividing Republicans and Democrats, is the issue of allocating resources. Should the government employ a system that forces the more successful citizens to assist those less fortunate than themselves, or should it adopt a policy that allows people to give charity willingly rather than through compulsion? What position do Jewish tradition and Halakhah take on the matter? I will not enter head-on into what is clearly an exceedingly complex subject,[i] but I believe that a passage in Bava Metsia[ii] may be surprisingly illuminating for this question.

The Talmud (cited in full in the original Aramaic on the column) presents a dispute between R. Yohanan and R. Elazar on the question of whether we say ribbit ketsutsah yotse’ah be-dayyanim or not – whether interest, once collected (illegally), can be forcibly returned by the court to the original borrower. The Talmud proposes several verses and accompanying derashot to support R. Yohanan’s position that the court cannot seize the usurious money. For R. Elazar’s dissenting opinion, the Talmud cites the verse (found in the context of usury), “…ve-hei ahikha immakh – …and your brother shall live with you,”[iii] which it interprets to mean “ahader leih ki heikhi de-neihi – return [the interest] to him in order that he can live.”[iv] What does R. Yohanan derive from this verse, if not R. Elazar’s derashah? He uses it to rule (like R. Akiva) in a celebrated case: If two people are stranded in the desert, and one has a jug with water sufficient for only one party to live, then that person should not split the water and allow both to die (as ben-Petura argued) but should drink it himself, because ve-hei ahikha immakh teaches that one’s life takes precedence over that of his fellow.

It is possible to construe the mahaloket between R. Yohanan and R. Elazar as based simply on which context each Amora chooses to deploy the explication of ve-hei ahikha immakh. Does it refer to the command to return ribbit in order that one’s fellow can live, or to the ruling that one should drink the water to save his own life? The dispute could be based merely on some maneuver in the derashah calculus; R. Elazar has the verse available to use for the former, while R.Yohanan prefers to apply it for the latter.[v]

However, I believe it is possible to understand this mahaloket as a much more profound one, as it reflects a question touching upon the fundamental meaning of the verse under discussion, as well as on prioritization of human values. Let us closely analyze the two derashot, based on those three words: ve-hei ahikha immakh. R. Elazar , in applying his derashah in the context of ribbit ketsutsah, explains: “ahader leih ki heikhi di-neihi.” This sentence enjoins a person to enable his fellow to live along with him, and this understanding derives from a focus on the words ve-hei ahikha. On the other hand, R. Yohanan applies R. Akiva’s derashah in the case of the two people in the desert, which expresses, “hayyekha kodemim li-hayyei haverkha – your life takes precedence over your fellow’s.”[vi] On this account of the verse, the emphasis is placed not on his fellow’s ability capacity to live, but on an overriding right that he himself has to live. My life takes precedence over my fellow’s.

Of course, these two approaches are not, strictly speaking, mutually exclusive. It is possible to affirm simultaneously that one has a most basic right to support his own life, while also establishing that, once that right has been satisfied, he has a responsibility to assist others in living, as well. Despite this possibility, it appears to me that these two opinions dispute one another across the board, with the argument spilling over (through the medium of the derashah) from one case into the next. In other words, R. Yohanan might disagree with R. Elazar’s derashah from ve-hei ahikha immakh not only because he happens to have an alternate derashah, but because that alternate interpretation, of hayyekha kodemim, dictates his own perspective on both preferential life-saving and interest– this money belongs to me, I earned it, and I cannot be expected to give it up to the other party just because he needs it.[vii]

Similarly, R. Elazar’s derashah of ve-hei ahikha immakh, interpreted to mean that one must provide for his fellow to live, might dictate his position about the two people in the desert as well. Perhaps he would argue that the point of the pasuk is that one has just as much of an obligation to his fellow as he has to himself. If so, how can he privilege himself over his fellow? The two must split the drink and both die.[viii]

I believe that understanding the issues of returning ribbit and sacrificing oneself to help a person in a desert as related can find support in some of the formulations within these two halves of the sugya. In all of the different derashot suggested for R. Elazar and R. Yohanan, a prevailing theme is that of life and death. For R. Yohanan (who holds that ribbit is not collectible by the court), two of his three derashot are based on the notion that a person who charges interest deserves to die rather than to return the money: The verse in Yehezkel says “ve-hai lo yihyeh” (he surely shall not live),[ix] and the Gemara explicates “le-mitah nittan ve-lo le-hishavon” (it [the interest] is given for death, not recompense).[x] The other pasuk from Yehezkel cited reads “mot yumat damav bo” (he shall surely die; his blood is on him),[xi] and Rava explains that we thus compare charging interest to murder.

In each case, either the lender’s or the borrower’s life is seen as threatened as a result of the ribbit transaction. Of course, R. Elazar’s derashah interpreting the verse in question supports forcible collection, compelling the lender to return the interest in order to allow the borrower to live, as above. And clearly, in the case of the two people in the desert, ve-hei ahikha immakh is an issue of life and death – the question is whether both deserted travelers will die or whether at least one will be able to make it back alive – and R. Akiva’s derashah therefore states “your life takes precedence over the life of your fellow.” Both derashot interpreting our verse frame their position in terms of weighing the relative value of the lives at stake. Now, it is not terribly surprising that ribbit is considered to be a case of life and death. The fact that someone is subjecting himself to a usurious loan in the first place bespeaks his sense of desperation, as he agrees to outrageously hostile conditions on the loan to avoid starvation. This fits with the Torah’s formulation of the prohibition as applying to money as well as food;[xii] loans with ribbit were often contracted in order to acquire basic necessities.

There is an additional literary connection between the sugyot. The rallying cry of R. Yohanan and his position that the ribbit is forcibly collected is “li-X nitan ve-lo le-hishavon,” namely that interest is designated only for things other than repayment (hishavon).The question is formulated as whether we coerce the lender to return (meshiv) the ribbit. In parallel, the question facing the person with the jug of water in the desert is whether he and/or his fellow will be able to reach civilization, the yishuv. The words yishuv and hishavon bear a clear literary resemblance to one another (though they stem from different shorashim). Additionally, each relates to a state of equilibrium, whether it is returning to one’s proper place or returning things to their proper owners.  These two similar discussions, parallel to (rather than intersecting with) one another, thus offer two versions of the same type of question.

And the parallel goes beyond a literary level: One understanding of what is at stake regarding ribbit, as Ramban points out, [xiii] is the question of whether we treat our fellow Jews as one larger community, almost like family, to the point that we do them favors such as lending to them without interest. Can I privilege my own position, or should I sacrifice my own potential profits in order to help my brother?  In what arrangement are all relevant parties given their due, put in their proper place? The desert scenario raises the question of how to weigh one’s opportunity to return to civilization against that of one’s fellow – which of the two has a greater right to return to civilization? Are we all equals, as citizens of one society? Can I privilege my own position, or should I sacrifice my life in order to help my brother? The two cases deal with both life-and-death situations as well as with the question of to what extent a fellow Jew is considered a part of one’s community.

I believe that a deep question of values underlies the matter of how to interpret ve-hei ahikha immakh in each case to which it is applied. To what degree do we view our primary responsibilities as being solely to ourselves, and how much of a claim do others have on us? Do we take an approach of personal partiality, in which every man can privilege his own needs over those of his fellow, or do we view all people as equal, requiring them to treat their neighbors as suitably as themselves? This question of priorities is reflected in the differing perspectives in understanding the verse, which in turn sets our perspective on each of the relevant cases.

Any political theory must take certain positions on issues of preferential treatment of self and family and the obligation of one individual to help another. The sugya discussed in this article exposes some of these fundamental questions with an intriguing discussion of two unexpectedly related issues. Many other sugyot offer similarly stimulating perspectives, where important issues facing the world can be explored through the prism of Jewish law. Out of the sources of Halakhah, a political philosophy awaits formulation.[xiv]

Shlomo Zuckier is a rabbinical student at RIETS. He was an editor-in-chief of Kol Hamevaser in 2010-2011.

[i] For two interesting discussions of the issue, see Aaron Levine, “The Role of Government” in his Free Enterprise and Jewish Law: Aspects of Jewish Business Ethics (Jersey City, NJ: Ktav, 1980) and Benjamin Hecht, “Beyond Tzedakah: Understanding the Torah Expenditure,” Nishma Journal Special Edition, accessible at

[ii] Bava Metsia 61b-62a.

[iii] Vayikra 25:36.

[iv] Bava Metsia, ibid.

[v] See Ritva to Bava Metsia 62a s.v. ve-Rabbi Yohanan, who explains the question in this manner.

[vi] Bava Metsia 62a.

[vii] Of course R. Yohanan will have to explain why usury is prohibited, but there are many, less robust, explanations of the prohibition, which presumably underlies his more lenient, einah yotse’ah be-dayyanim, position.

[viii] This would be a significant logical jump, but it would be supported by the Talmud, which appears to connect these two mahalokot. Further, R. Yeruham Fishel Perlau, in his commentary on R. Sa’adiah Gaon’s Sefer ha-Mitsvot (Helek 3, Parshah 33) argues that Rambam does not follow R. Akiva because he accepts R. Elazar’s reasoning.

[ix] Yehezkel 18:13.

[x] Bava Metsia 61a.

[xi] Yehezkel, Ibid.

[xii] See Vayikra 25:37, Devarim 23:20, and Bava Metsia 60b-61a.

[xiii] Devarim 23:20.

[xiv] Paraphrase of R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s concluding sentence in Halakhic Mind (New York: Seth Press, 1986).