The Prozbul in Our Time
BY RABBI YOSEF ZVI RIMON
What is a prozbul?
When Hillel saw that the wealthy were refusing to lend money to the poor and violating what is written in the Torah – “Beware lest there be any reprobate thing in your heart…” (Devarim 15:9) – Hillel instituted the prozbul (an institution, proz, to encourage the wealthy, bul, to lend), which ensures that a loan will not be canceled due to shemitta (Shevi’it 10:3–4).
This is the substance of the prozbul: “I submit to you, such-and-such individuals, the judges in such-and-such place, that whatever debt is owed to me, I shall collect it at any time I desire”, and the judges or witnesses sign below.
How could Hillel make loans stay in force after the end of the shemitta year, thereby abrogating a law of the Torah? According to Rava, Hillel was able to do so because a court has the authority to declare property ownerless, while Abayei argues that Hillel could enact the prozbul because nowadays shemitta observance is required only by rabbinic law (Gittin 36a–b).
How prozbul works
“One who submits to a court – the debts owed him are not subject to cancellation” (Mishnah Shevi’it 10:2).
The Torah says to forgive loans to “your brother”. By using this wording, it addresses a private person rather than a court. The requirement to forgive a loan therefore does not apply to a court, in keeping with the understanding that the basis of this mitzvah is the prohibition against showing ownership of money. No such law exists regarding something that belongs to a court, because the judges are not owners of the object, but representatives of the public (Sifrei, Re’eh 113; Yerushalmi 10:1).
A prozbul is written in the month of Elul at the end of a shemitta year; it cannot be written after Rosh Hashanah, because by then the debt has been erased. At first glance, it would seem that a prozbul should be prepared on the last day of Elul, to prevent the cancellation of all loans made until then. However, many permit writing a prozbul from the beginning of the month, based on the halachic rule that unless otherwise stated, a loan comes due no earlier than thirty days after it is given. Therefore, any loans extended during Elul are not canceled.
“Shmuel said, ‘A prozbul is written only in either the Court of Sura or the Court of Neharda’” (Gittin 36b).
The implication is that a prozbul may be written only in a court of note (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 67:18). However, Ramban (Sefer ha-Zechut, Gittin 18b) and others argue that Shmuel’s view is not authoritative, and Rema rules that a prozbul may be written in any court – especially today, when loans are canceled only by dint of rabbinic law.
The Rishonim also debate whether the court must be present at the writing of the prozbul. Shulchan Aruch and Rema indicate that the judges do not need to be present (Choshen Mishpat 67:21). Accordingly, the practice is to include in a prozbul the names of leading judges and to read and sign it before two witnesses. Nevertheless, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l formulated a prozbul text that accommodates both views. It includes the names of major judges, but is signed by three individuals instead of only two. This way, if the halachah requires the judges to be present, the signatories are considered judges rather than witnesses.
Some practical advice
- Specific borrowers’ names do not need to be included in a prozbul. Instead, the prozbul says that the lender submits to the court everything he is owed by all borrowers.
- The lender recites the text of the prozbul before the court. The spaces for name, date, and place of preparation are filled out, and then the court signs.
- For a joint account owned by a husband and wife, both their names are simply written down. If the wife has a separate account or has made separate loans, the husband must ask to be his wife’s agent and add to the text of the prozbul that he is also acting for his wife.
After filling out a prozbul, some individuals go out of their way to make a loan, even a small one, to fulfill the mitzvah of relinquishing a loan.
May Hashem always nourish us with dignity, and never with loans or gifts from other human beings!
Rabbi Yosef Zvi Rimon is Head of Mizrachi’s Educational Advisory Board and Rabbinic Council. He serves as the Rabbi of the Gush Etzion Regional Council and is the Founder and Chairman of Sulamot.