The Mitzvah of Cancellation of Debts at the Conclusion of Shevi’it as it Applies to Women

In the previous Halachot we have explained the basic laws of cancellation of debts by Shevi’it in that any debt one is owed and has been incurred by another as a loan and whose time for repayment has already arrived is cancelled once the Shemitta year passes (this year, 5775, is the Shemitta year and this coming Rosh Hashanah of 5776 marks the conclusion of the Shemitta year). In such a case, the lender may no longer claim repayment for such debts since these debts have already been cancelled on the night of Rosh Hashanah 5776. We have discussed several detailed laws related to this.

We have likewise mentioned that if a woman lends her neighbor bread or milk and the like, since the woman does not expect the neighbor to return those same loaves of bread or cartons of milk, rather, she expects the neighbor to purchase new ones and repay her with those, it turns out that the loaves of bread were not merely “lent” to the neighbor (as one would lent a tool or other object); rather, these loaves were, in essence “loaned” to the neighbor (as one would loan money). Thus, the woman who has lent these loaves of bread must take care not to request repayment for them since the conclusion of Shevi’it cancels such debts and the neighbor is not obligated to return the bread or milk to the neighbor who lent them to her in the first place.

This law is based on the words of Rabbeinu Yosef Haim zt”l of Baghdad in his epic work, Ben Ish Hai (end of Parashat Ki Tavo). We can imply from his words that women are also obligated in the Mitzvah of cancellation of debts by Shevi’it, for the example he brings is one woman lending bread to another woman. Indeed, the Sefer Ha’Chinuch (end of Mitzvah 477) states explicitly that the Mitzvah of cancellation of debts by Shevi’it applies equally to both men and women.

It seems, however, that this should not be the case since we have a rule that women are exempt from all positive, time-bound Mitzvot (such as Shofar, Sukkah, Lulav which are all bound by specific times; this is unlike all negative Mitzvot, such as Shabbat and Yom Kippur where everyone is forbidden to perform work) and the Mitzvah of cancellation of debts by Shevi’it is likewise a positive commandment to release all debts owed to her (regarding the negative commandment of “He shall not exact it from his friend” which refers to the prohibition of claiming such a debt after Shevi’it, although this is a negative commandment which women are likewise obligated to abide by, nevertheless, in our scenario, the woman’s friend is coming of her own accord to return the loaves of bread to her neighbor and thus, the woman who lent them is not exacting them from her friend and is merely silently accepting what her friend owes her). If so, it would seem that women should not be obligated in this Mitzvah of cancellation of debts.

Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l deals with this issue at length in his work (Chazon Ovadia-Prozbul, page 38) and discusses several reasons to obligate women in the Mitzvah of cancellation of debts by Shevi’it. One of them is based on the words of Rabbeinu David Abudirhem (page 10b), the Orchot Chaim (Volume 2, beginning of Hilchot Milah), the Kol Bo quoting Mahari Anatoly in his Sefer Melamed Ha’Talmidim, and many others who write that the reason why women are exempt from positive, time-bound Mitzvot is because they are usually in the home more taking care of the children and the other household chores and the Torah therefore did not obligate her to perform such Mitzvot, for if women would indeed be obligated to perform such Mitzvot, it would be quite difficult for them to endure so many pressures and responsibilities. Thus, regarding positive, time-bound Mitzvot which are performed in a passive manner, such as the Mitzvah of cancellation of debts following Shevi’it which does not require the woman to actively do anything in order to release debts owed to her, there is no reason to exempt women from such a Mitzvah since its performance does not cause them any bother or burden whatsoever. The great Penei Yehoshua and others rule accordingly. Other reasons and clear proofs which obligate women in this Mitzvah of cancellation of debts are discussed as well.

Summary: Women are obligated, without a shadow of a doubt, in the Mitzvah of cancellation of debts following Shevi’it. Thus, if a woman lends her friend some loaves of bread or an amount of money and the Shemitta year has passed over such debts, the woman may no longer claim repayment of such debts from her friend. (Even if the friend comes of her own volition to repay the debt, the woman must tell her that according to Halacha, she is not required to repay this debt since it has already been cancelled by the conclusion of Shevi’it; only if the friend wishes to return it as a gift may the woman accept it.) Nevertheless, all of this applies if the woman has not written a Prozbul. However, if the woman has written a Prozbul, all debts owed to her are not cancelled, as we shall discuss in the following Halacha.