The fifth perek of Massekhet Bava Metzia, which began on daf 60b , focuses on the prohibition of ribit – of charging interest. This prohibition is mentioned three times in the Torah (Shemot 22:24, Vayikra 25:35-38 and Devarim 23:20-21). The straightforward case of biblically forbidden ribit is called ribit ketzutza – interest that is set at a given sum or percentage of the loan. The Sages added other forms of interest, adding cases where there is an appearance of interest given changes in the pricing or value of objects that are bought and sold, for example.
It is clear that a person who charges interest should repay his ill-gotten gains. Will the Jewish courts force him to return ribit that he collected?
The Gemara (61b) brings two different opinions regarding this matter. Rabbi Elazar rules that the courts will force a person to return ribit ketzutza, but not avak ribit – interest that is only forbidden on a rabbinic level. Rabbi Yohanan believes that the courts will not require any ribit to be returned. While several sources are suggested for Rabbi Yohanan’s ruling, the Gemara brings one passage to support Rabbi Elazar – ve-hei ahikhah imakh (Vayikra 25:36). In the midst of the laws forbidding usury, the Torah says “…and your brother shall live with you.” Rabbi Elazar understands this as requiring the individual who takes interest to return it, so that his brother can live, as well.
What teaching does Rabbi Yohanan learn from this passage? The Gemara tells of a well-known argument between Ben Petora and Rabbi Akiva. Ben Petora ruled that if two men are in the desert and only one of them has enough water to reach civilization, he is obligated to share it with his fellow, rather than watch him die. Rabbi Akiva quotes this pasuk to say that your brother must live with you, implying that you must have greater concern for your own life than for your fellow’s, and that the owner of the water should keep it for himself in order to survive.
One question that is raised by the commentaries regarding Rabbi Akiva’s teaching is why a general rule like this one would appear in the midst of the Torah’s discussion of ribit? One answer that is suggested is that this comes to teach that a person who does not have enough money for his own needs should not feel an obligation to lend money to his friend who is in need.