Parashat Ki Tetze – Deut 21:10-25:19

D’varim/Deuteronomy 24:6   One shall not take as pledge a handmill or an upper millstone, for he is taking a soul as pledge.


This text has an importance that can easily be missed as we rush through the book of D’varim on our way to the Autumn feasts. We are tired at the end of the summer and we find ourselves wondering whether Moshe – like so many modern authors – started and ended well, but lost the plot a bit in the middle of the book. Mingled with commands about divorce and remarriage, military exemption upon marriage, kidnapping, tzara’at and the exploitation of workers, this mitzvah can seem like just one more bit of text that Moshe rushed through with an, “Ah, did I forgot to tell you about … ?” on the front.

The two verbs in the verse both come from the same root, חָבַל, “to bind”, so by metonymy, “to take a pledge”. The first, יַחֲבֹל , is the Qal 3ms prefix form, “he shall take as a pledge”; the second, חֹבֵל
, is the Qal ms participle, “taking a pledge”.

Ibn Ezra points out that the word רֵחַיִם is in dual form and says that there is no singular form. Usually translated ‘hand-mill’ or even just ‘mill’ this reflects the physical construction and operation: you need two surfaces to grind grain into flour. The next word, רָכֶב , rendered “upper millstone” comes from the root רָכַב, meaning “to ride”, so should have the literal meaning of “the rider”. Ibn Ezra suggests that “some think that it refers to the wooden handle of the “handmill”. A mill consists of one (often large, heavy) stationary grinding surface and another (usually lighter) moveable grinding surface which ‘rides’ over the first surface and the grain to crack and grind the grain to release the flour. Both parts are listed, since taking either one renders the whole inoperative even if if it is not all taken.

Who Is Abraham Ibn Ezra: (1089-1167 CE), born in Tudela, Spain; died in the South of France after wandering all around the shores of the Mediterranean and England; a philosopher, astronomer, doctor, poet and linguist; wrote a Hebrew grammar and a commentary on the Bible

Our earliest indication that this text has more than usual significance comes in Targum Onkelos, whose Aramaic paraphrase offers, “A handmill or an upper millstone shall not be taken as collateral for through them he is causing a loss of food to people.”

What Is Targum Onkelos: An early (1st-2nd Century CE) translation/paraphrase of the Torah into Aramaic; attributed to a Roman convert to Judaism, Onkelos; used in Babylonian synagogues during the Talmudic era

Why should Onkelos present the last phrase in this way? He is alerting us to the way in which the early rabbis were framing their discussion of this command. The sages of the Mishnah consider this to be in the context of a loan which has passed its repayment date and the lender has gone to court and obtained a distraint order against the debtor (m. Bava Metzia 9:13). Only then, they argue, can a lender formally take an article as a pledge or collateral – and that, they then argue, can only be done by an officer of the court, not the lender himself (b. Bava Metzia 113a-114a). However, in the case of a handmill or a millstone, these are specifically excluded from being suitable for collateral: “They did not only speak of a mill and the upper millstone, but concerning any utensil with which they prepare food, as it is said, ‘For he seizes a man’s life as a pledge'” (m. Bava Metzia 9:13). This is why Rashi says, “If he comes to take collateral for his debt in court, he should not take collateral from him with things with which they prepare food.” This has broadened from simply being a hand-mill or a means of grinding grain, to being any utensil that is used for the preparation of food – the Torah’s ‘hand-mill’ is simply being used as one typical member of a whole class of cooking equipment, the removal of any of which might prevent the debtor being able to prepared and cook food for himself and his family. As Abravanel comments, “This commandment falls under the heading of ‘You shall not murder’ (Shemot 20:13)”.

Who Is Abravanel: Don Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508 CE), Statesman and biblical commentator; born in Lisbon, died in Venice; wrote commentaries on the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures

Generalising further, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch uses this as an example of the way in which people’s lives interact: “The private individual too has to refrain from imposing the justified demands of his private rights if they would mean shattering the means of existence for his brother who is in debt to him.” No-one is saying that the debt is not real or should not be repaid; simply that within a compassionate society – as G-d’s people are called to be – there must be limits. “Vital implements may not be distrained to compel repayment of a loan,” explains Jeffrey Tigay. “This verse limits the means by which creditors may pressure their debtors to repay. To increase the likelihood of repayment, in at least some cases, lenders had a right to take property from their debtors to induce them to repay what they had borrowed. The aim of the Torah’s laws about distraint is to ensure that is such circumstances, the creditor’s legitimate right to repayment is subordinated to the survival and dignity of the debtor. The restrictions (see also vv. 10-13 and 17) considerably reduce the creditor’s leverage in securing repayment, but they are consistent with the Bible’s position that loans to the poor are acts of charity that may well turn into outright gifts (see also 15:1-6,10).” Elsewhere, the Torah is insistent that a poor member of society should be given support by the community in whatever way was necessary to lift his poverty. If a loan was preferable to a gift of charity, in order to protect the poor man’s dignity, then so be it – but if he could not repay the loan, then it was to be written off as a gift, or the community was to repay the original lender.

But there is also a larger picture in play here. By removing either or both parts of a mill, the lender (or the court on his behalf) are not only removing the debtor’s property in order to pressurise him into repaying the loan and thereby putting his life and health at risk, they are also almost certainly removing the only means he has by which to earn the money to repay the debt. Without his mill, he cannot grind grain to produce flour; some of that flour may be for personal consumption – keeping body and soul together – but the rest of the flour might be for sale at a much better price than the un-ground grain. Not only does this directly punish the debtor and his family for non-repayment of the original loan, but it both worsens his debt position and makes it impossible for repayment ever to occur. This can hardly be in the interests of the lender unless there is another agenda at work; unless the lender wants to gain sufficient leverage over the debtor to seize his land, or force him and his family into slavery.

Now we can see a still larger picture behind this individual command, important though it is in its own context: the picture of debt and the way it is used as a coercive and manipulative lever to control people, situations and organisations. Not without reason does Solomon warn that “The rich rule the poor, and the borrower is a slave to the lender” (Proverbs 22:7, JPS). The prophets warned the people during the times of the kings that HaShem would not tolerate this abuse of the poor: “Therefore because you trample on the poor and you exact taxes of grain from him, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not dwell in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. For I know how many are your transgressions and how great are your sins — you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and turn aside the needy in the gate” (Amos 5:11-12, ESV), but even after the trauma of the exile, those who returned from Babylon still found themselves victims of the same practices: “There were also those who said, ‘We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards, and our houses to get grain because of the famine.’ And there were those who said, ‘We have borrowed money for the king’s tax on our fields and our vineyards. Now our flesh is as the flesh of our brothers, our children are as their children. Yet we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but it is not in our power to help it, for other men have our fields and our vineyards'” (Nehemiah 5:3-5, ESV). Lending money or providing and then denying trade is one of the principal mechanisms used by larger companies and corporations to take over, plunder and destroy their smaller competitors.

But this is even larger still than individuals and organisations. This is happening on a global scale between countries, nation states and even groups of nations. The European Union is using debt as a means of forcing Greece and other southern European countries such as Italy, Spain and Portugal to accept the majority economic practices and ways, to the huge detriment of their own people. Thousands have seen their pensions and savings completely destroyed. Unemployment has rocketed while benefits have been cut and the disenfranchised in society – the poor, the widows, the orphans, the sick – are being denied access to healthcare, food and housing. Even supposedly wealthier nations are not immune: the UK only managed to clear its debts to America from the Second World War in the last few years, after decades of being beholden to the United States. Now, instead, it is becoming indebted to China and other Far Eastern countries instead under the mantra of “inward investment”. Then there is the question of the third world. Many countries in Africa, South America and elsewhere have been lent vast sums of money, way beyond their capacity to repay and, at the same time, locked into trade agreements that force them to abuse their own people and makes it theoretically possible but practically impossible ever to escape the burden of debt. Avocado pears from Peru look lovely on the supermarket shelf, but the gallons of water needed to grow them are taken from the poor and the workers from miles around so that foreign currency can be earned to service the country’s debt. Does this sound like Abravanel’s reference – “You shall not murder?” And are we accomplices?

Further Study: Micah 2:1-3; James 5:1-6

Application: What could you do to reduce the burden and pressure of debt, on those around you, within your country and around the world? How can you help to alter and shape opinion, public and private, to alleviate the creation and abuse of debt as a political and corporate weapon?