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Reviewed by:
  • Jewish Law in Transition: How Economic Forces Overcame the Prohibition against Lending on Interest
  • Peter J. Haas
Jewish Law in Transition: How Economic Forces Overcame the Prohibition against Lending on Interest, by Hillel Gamoran. Cincinnati: Alumni Series of the Hebrew Union College Press, 2008. 196 pp. $35.00.

The book, as the title indicates, is an attempt to understand how the biblical prohibition against lending on interest to fellow Jews was changed in the rabbinic period. As Rabbi Gamoran himself puts it in his introduction, "This book recounts how a biblical law, clear, simple, and direct, became engulfed in controversy over the centuries" (p. 3). The basic premise is that as Jews left the biblical period it was clear that the outright ban on interest, meant originally to protect the poor, would have made Jewish business dealings impossible. So, through "inventive interpretation," the law forbidding usury was essentially annulled.

The book's organization is simple and direct. The first chapter looks at the basic prohibition as stated in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. The rest of the book focuses on five areas of financing that could potentially violate the ban on usury: loans of produce, advance payments, buying on credit, mortgages, and investments. Chapter Two looks at how each of these practices was redefined in the Talmudic period first by the Tannaim and then by the Amoraim. The next five chapters take up each of these themes in turn and trace its treatment under the Geonim (650-1050 CE), the Rishonim (sages from 1050 CE to about 1500 CE), and the Aharonim (sages from roughly 1500 CE to the present).

The biblical material is treated in fairly rudimentary fashion. The three statements of this law that form the focus of the chapter are understood to apply to Israelites offering loans to their fellow Israelites. This, Gamoran notes, is different from what we find in other Ancient Near Eastern texts that deal with business law (Hammurabi, for example). This is so, Gamoran, posits, because of the unique background of the Israelites as a slave people and because of the community's relatively primitive organization once in the land of Canaan. The paramount concern of the framers of biblical law, posits Gamoran, was protection [End Page 172] of the poor, not nurturing business. While Gamoran's fairly idealistic view of biblical Israel's economy may have been somewhat true during the time of the judges, it certainly does not follow that this was true hundreds of years later when Deuteronomy records this law. In fact, Israel and Judah seem to have been extensively involved in trade and other business activities. Gamoran does not explore the economic contexts of the various biblical communities over time. Rather, he treats biblical Israel, and so biblical law, as a monolithic and unchanging whole.

The second chapter looks first at the Tannaim (authorities of the Mishnah, redacted in the middle of the second century CE) and then at the Amoraim (authorities of the Talmud, from mid-third to mid-seventh centuries CE). The Tannaim, according to Gamoran, tried to apply the biblical prohibition to their new economic reality, dealing with any loophole they could find that might lead to the taking of interest. At the same time, however, seeing that such stringency was counter-productive, these same authorities found themselves forced to create occasional exceptions to their own rulings. Faced with this confused legacy, the Amoraim, who completed the Talmud, routinely chose the lenient position. In each area under investigation, Gamoran shows, the Amoraim found ways to create a more "business friendly" environment.

The remaining chapters consist of a glancing look at post-Talmudic halachic resources, mostly responsa (rabbinic rescripts). There is some brief description of changes in the larger economic framework in which the Jews lived, some acknowledgement of differences in prevailing economic practices in diverse places (Provence vs Spain vs Germany, for example), and the occasional reference to the personality or situation of an individual writer. But for the most part these contextual issues of economic and fiscal theory; notions of money, value, and worth; the legal status of Jews; and the structure of trade relationships between different regions are rarely...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-5165
Print ISSN
0882-8539
Pages
pp. 172-174
Launched on MUSE
2011-04-09
Open Access
No
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