Borrow Sorrow – How much of a sacrifice do I need to make to pay off debt?

Q. I have a lot of debt, and my income is not really enough to make the monthly payments. I am trying to cut expenses and live more modestly. Do I need to take more drastic steps to satisfy my creditors? AW

A. Right now a lot of people are finding themselves without the sources of income they relied upon when they borrowed money. The dilemma they face is how to act ethically without devastating their standard of living.

Jewish law states that a borrower is obligated to pay his debts. One who fails to do so is acting unethically, as we learn in the Psalms, “The wicked borrow but do not pay”. (Psalms 37:21) It is likewise wrong to make the borrower run after you if you have the means to pay, as we learn in Proverbs, “Don’t tell your fellow, go away and come back, I’ll give you tomorrow, if you have with you [the ability to pay].” (Proverbs 3:28.)

The renowned authority and saint Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaCohen, known as the Chafetz Chaim, writes: “A person can’t excuse himself from [paying his debts], just as he can’t excuse himself fromsukkah, shofar and tefillin” — ritual commandments that most Jews are very careful to fulfill.

At the same time, creditors don’t have the power to leave you completely empty-handed; they must leave you the possessions required for a minimal standard of living and for the ability to earn a livelihood. This is learned from the verse that commands the creditor, “Don’t seize the millstones, for you are seizing a person’s very soul”. (Deuteronomy 24:6.) The same chapter tells us that if the collateral is something that is essential to the debtor, such as his night-clothes, it has to be returned when the debtor needs it. (Deuteronomy 24:12-13.) We see that the creditor needs to leave the debtor basic necessities for living and support.

It follows that you don’t have to reduce yourself to utter penury. Rather, you should pinch pennies, avoid luxuries, and sell non-essential assets when this is practical in a way similar to whatever arrangement creditors could impose on you if they pressed their case.

In most cases the best policy, when you’re over your head in debt but are motivated to do your best to fulfill your obligations, is to contact your creditors and ask them to cooperate in arranging a payment schedule that you can live with. If they are convinced of your sincerity, they will probably agree. Unlike legal action which is expensive, combative and risky for all, this cooperative solution benefits both borrower and creditor.

SOURCES: Ahavat Chesed chapter 24; Babylonian Talmud Bava Kama 113b. Pitchei Choshen on loans, chapters 2 and 7.