A cup of sugar, a couple of eggs or a few onions. These are the types of items that neighbors often lend to one another without a second thought. As a good neighbor, a borrower will often slip five dollars in the mail box as a repayment or give back a little extra sugar as a way of saying thank you, or because it is more convenient. Returning the equivalent and then some may seem like a nice thing to do, but, from the viewpoint of Jewish law, it may not be the right thing to do.
In their discussions of Jewish civil law, the classic rabbinic authorities paid particular attention to the Torah’s prohibition of charging interest on a loan. While it is a mitzvah to lend money to someone in need, one may not charge interest to another Jew. This prohibition is repeated three times in the Torah (Exodus 22:24, Leviticus 25:35-37 and Deuteronomy 23:20–21). The legal definition of interest is understood to include usury, unequal exchanges of goods or services, over-inflated prices, and so forth.
Among the numerous other common day circumstances in which one must be careful of “taking interest” is neighborly lending. When a person lends a neighbor some sugar and then accepts back a new, full bag of sugar in return, that person is, in effect, taking interest.
Knowing that neighborly lending can lead to problems in Jewish law does not mean that one should refrain from helping a friend, but rather that one should be conscious in how he/she acts when either lending or borrowing. To resolve this issue, one may establish a regular relationship to commonly borrow and lend from one another, in which case, the risk of interest is much reduced or negated. However, if the request is made by someone with whom one does not commonly share items, one may offer the item as a gift, making it clear that there is no expectation of a return on the product. Likewise, a lender who returns more out of convenience should make it a point to state that any extra is itself a gift and not interest.
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