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Why is interest on a loan compared to a snake’s bite?

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel

This week’s Torah portion in Israel is “Behar” (Leviticus 25:2-26:2) and although it is one of the shortest portions in the entire Torah it contains over two dozen mitzvot.

One these mitzvot is the ban on charging interest to a fellow Jew.

As the verse says: “And when your brother will become poor…do not give him money on interest…or sell him food for profit…I am the Lord your God who took you out of the Land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 25:35-38)

It is noted that one of the words for “interest” is “neshech” which can be translated as “a bite”. It is explained that charging interest is like a snake’s bite, which at first glance, may only cause a scratch, but it could ultimately end up being fatal. Interest payments often crush people with their never-ending increase, fees, and payments.

The sin of charging interest to a fellow Jew, in the context of any loan, whether the borrower is poor or rich, is an especially severe transgression. It was one of the few transgressions in the Torah where it includes the reminder of “I am the Lord your God” as if to remind us, you can’t hide from God. He will know if you are taking interest on a loan whether explicitly or in a roundabout way.

The Talmud even calls charging interest to fellow Jews “a denial of the existence of God.”

Why such a severe comparison?

A person’s income is decided on Rosh Hashanah. When God decrees a person’s income for the year, He takes into consideration all our needs and how that income will be delivered to us.

One who charges interest is trying to “outsmart” God by earning income that He does not want him to have. Trying to find additional income in ways which God forbids essentially denies God’s providence over the world.

It emerges, therefore, that observing the ban on taking interest — not to mention acting honestly in all our financial dealings, which the Torah warns us about in several different places — is sign of our belief and trust in God.

In most such cases no one would know if we were stealing or cheating the Torah’s financial system. No one would know if a store merchant fixed his scales to show more weight or that a small loan between two people includes interest.

It is easy to appear in public as the most God-fearing Sabbath observant induvial, or as one who is especially pious in his observance of keeping kosher.

But it is only mitzvot such as the ban on interest — where nobody will know that someone is transgressing —  that declare loud and clear who is truly a God-fearing and pious individual.

Let’s make an effort to ensure that not only our public actions please God, but even our most private decisions and behaviors please God, as well.