The Greenbergs have very good neighbors. They are
always dropping in for short visits and always leave with a souvenir!
Sometimes it’s a carrot, sometimes a cup of milk; a bottle of oil or a bag
of sugar have also been known to accompany their departure. In the course
of the last year, a substantial amount of food items have left the
Greenberg household. Since all these loans are never repaid, Mr. Greenberg
wishes to know (1) if they may say to these neighbors that they do not
have the requested item (meaning that it is not available for this
neighbor); (2) if he may present them with a detailed list of items
borrowed, requesting their return (even though this may embarrass the
The Torah commands us (Shemos 22:24),
"When you lend money," which our Sages inform us is not optional
but an obligation. Indeed, even though one does not give charity to the
rich, one can lend him money if he is in need of a loan (for example, if
he only has credit cards and the shopkeeper only takes cash!). One can
also lend him a food item which he does not have at home. However, if one
knows (from experience) that a particular borrower either never pays back
at all, that it is very difficult to obtain repayment of the loan or that
one has to wait a long time for one’s money, it is permitted to refuse to
lend him money or food (Choshen Mishpot 97:4). If a person still
wishes to lend to this person money despite his bad track record, he is
entitled to demand guarantors and/or other forms of security as a
precondition to granting him the loan.
What is the law if only small quantities of food items
are being constantly borrowed – but not returned (e.g. a cup of sugar, a
single egg)? Since people are generally not particular that such small
items are returned, the neighbor is exempt from "repaying" these
loans. Indeed, there continues to be an obligation on the lending neighbor
to supply the pinch of salt, milk for a cup of coffee, etc. – with a
smile! However, if more substantial items are borrowed, the borrower is
obligated to return the packet of sugar, bottle of oil, etc. in the same
way as he must repay any other loan. Should he constantly fail to do so,
one is exempt from lending to him in the future.
May you tell him that you do not have the requested
packet of sugar even though you have ten packets in the cupboard? Our
Sages inform us that one may make an ambiguous statement or even lie in
order to promote peace (mipnay darkay sholom – see Tractate Bovo
Metzia 23b). To tell the prospective borrower, “I am not going to
lend you because you never pay back," might well cause him
embarrassment. It is then better to say that you do not have the item he
asked for – meaning that it is not available for him!
There is no reason why the Greenbergs should not
present their neighbor with a detailed list of her borrowings,
respectfully (but firmly) requesting payment. Here, one does not have to
be concerned that she will be embarrassed by the mere request, since every
borrower knows that he is obligated to repay his loans. She is just
being reminded of her duty!
It could be that the frequent visitor is poor. In that case, it would
be an elevated form of charity to "lend" her whatever she asks
for and not request repayment. She is too embarrassed to ask for an
outright gift and that is why she wishes to "borrow". The value
of these gifts may be deducted from one’s ma’aser (tithe) account.
Indeed, helping needy neighbors is a high priority on the charity list (aniyay
ir’cho kodmim l’aniyay ir acheres). It is always preferable to assist
them in a way which preserves their dignity.