One of Hillel’s major contributions to the Law, the customs, and the lifestyle of Judea was the ordinance of the Prozbul. The economy of Judea was based on agriculture. During hard times, such as during the many droughts that occurred in this area, the poor had always relied on loans from the rich. High interest rates and loss of land to the wealthier citizens created intolerable inequality, both economic and social. The Torah, attempting to prevent the total deterioration of society, had cancelled all debts by the final year of the seven-year Sabbatical cycle.
Hillel cancelled this compassionate law on his own authority. How can that be? Hillel, the soul of charity, the one who constantly helped the poor, cancelled the law that would save them from starvation, or from permanently losing their land? This sounds inconceivable; could he have possibly turned on his people in order to pacify the rich? In addition, how could he bring himself to object to a Mosaic Law, stated in the Torah – literally annul a sacred command? This could not be
done lightly – there had to be a very good reason for such behavior. Besides, the Prozbul is included in the collection of ordinances of Mipnei Tikkun haOlam, which mean, “for the welfare of the world/community.” So it could not be meant to benefit only the rich, who did not particularly require welfare.
The controversy can be explained when one understands Hillel’s moral courage, immense scholarship, and independent thought process. His concerns were for the spirit of the Law, not the details, and he had plenty of room to manipulate the ordinance. To begin with, the Torah itself anticipated some controversy. Here is what it says in Deuteronomy 15:8-9 (King James Version):
“8 But thou shalt open thine hand wide unto him, and shalt surely lend him sufficient for his need, in that which he wanteth. 9 Beware that there be not a thought in thy wicked heart, saying, The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand; and thine eye be evil against thy poor brother, and thou givest him nought; and he cry unto the Lord against thee, and it be sin unto thee.”
Indeed. When the seventh year was near, THE RICH SIMPLY STOPPED GIVING ANY LOANS TO THE POOR. Why should they, they felt, when they knew that they would never be paid? During Hillel’s time, it became a serious problem which affected the economic situation catastrophically. Appealing to the rich did not good, they would not listen, and Hillel’s only option was to rearrange the legal aspect for the command.
Using the legal device called the Prozbul, a Greek word meaning “Before the Council” Hillel decreed that the debt was transferred from a person, the creditor, to a corporate body – the courts. Unlike today’s corporation, corporate bodies in Judea were not considered persons, so a court was not bound by the Sabbatical year cancellation of debts. The creditor could make a written declaration, enabling the court to collect the debt, and then eventually transfer it to the creditor. The creditor was not in danger of losing his money – and would, therefore, continue to lend money to the poor whenever asked, insuring that the economy would not collapse.
Here is the text from the Talmud, Shevi'ith Chapter 10, 3-6 :
Mishnah 3. [a loan secured by] a Prozbul is not cancelled. This was one of the things instituted by Hillel the Elder; for when he observed people refraining from lending to one another, and thus transgressing what is written in the law, ‘beware, lest there be a base thought in thy heart’, he instituted the prozbul.
Mishnah 4. This is the formula of the prozbul: ‘I declare before you, so-and-so, judges of that place, that touching any debt that I may have outstanding, I shall collect it whenever I desire’. And the judges sign below, or the witnesses.
Mishnah 5. an ante-dated Prozbul is legal; if post-dated, it is illegal. Ante-dated bonds [of loans] are not valid, but those post-dated are valid. If one borrows from five persons, a separate Prozbul must be made for each [creditor]; but if five borrow from the same person, then one prozbul only will suffice for them all.
Mishnah 6. a Prozbul is written only for [a debt secured by] immovable property; and if [the debtor] has none, then [the creditor] can give him title to a share, however small, of his own field. If he had land in pledge in a city, a Prozbul can be written on [the security thereof].