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Rabbi Alfred S. Cohen

When Are Debts Cancelled?

The Torah says, "At the end (miketz) of seven years, you shall make shemita," Devari 15:1. In his commentary, Ramban notes that there is some question as to which end of the shemita year cancels debts -- the onset of the year or its conclusion, since the word miketz tolerates either interpretation. Indeed, there is a striking lack of consistency among halachic decisors as to the proper time for executing a pruzbul.18

According to the Rambam, a person may collect monies owed him throughout the seventh year, and it is only at the conclusion of that year that the cancellation goes into effect. According to the Rosh,19 however, even during the seventh year, it is forbidden to ask for repayment, although the debt is not actually cancelled until the end of the year. In other words, if the borrower offers to repay, it is permitted to accept.

The Shulchan Aruch Harav writes that it is proper (lechatchila) to execute the pruzbul at the end of the sixth year... "but if he didn't do it at the end of the sixth year, he should do it in the seventh."20 Rav Ovadia Yosef brings the Chatam Sofer who reports that his teacher, Rav Natan Adler, "made a pruzbul at the end of the seventh year... but I do not know for sure that he did not write a pruzbul at the end of the sixth year... 21

According to the strict reading of the law, in order for a pruzbul to be effective, the borrower must own real estate, for the property is considered as "set aside" for the collection of the debt. Thus, in a sense, the debt has already been collected prior to the seventh year. If the borrower does not own land, the lender can give him a present of land -- even a flower pot with a hole in the bottom, set on ground, is sufficient, for the dirt in the pot is considered as receiving its nourishment from the ground. The "gift" of land can be effected even without the knowledge or approval of the borrower, based on the assumption that he implicitly agrees to all conditions which make it possible for him to borrow money. However, if the borrower specifically refuses the acquisition of "land", it cannot be transferred to him against his express will.22 Halachic decisors note various leniencies on this point, such as permitting a spouse's land to serve as security for the debts of the other spouse. This leniency is possible since the law of shemitat kesafim today is only rabbinic in nature.23

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