Q. I believe Hillel enacted a device called a Prozbul to prevent debts from being cancelled in the Sh’mittah (Sabbatical year). How could he have done this when the Torah says one must not add to or subtract from the commandments (Deut. 4:2, 13:1)?
A. There have been many enactments introduced into Jewish law over the centuries. There are takkanot (“improvements”), introduced to promote observance of the law, and g’zerot (from a root that means to cut or decide), designed to protect the law from infringement.
The authority the sages had to make enactments derives from Deut. 17:8-11, which empowers “the judge that shall be in those days” to declare the law. Maimonides says it is permitted to make enactments provided there is no claim that these are of equal authority to the Torah.
The Ra’avad says there is no problem unless an enactment alters a positive commandment (e.g. to have five, not four, sections in the tefillin). The Rashba declares that the problems of the age can be addressed through enactments provided this is done by the great authorities of the generation.
In Hillel’s case he saw that people were exploiting the rule in Deut. 15:1-2, “At the end of every seven years you shall cancel all debts”. In the final years of a 7-year cycle, loans were being withheld, despite the explicit warning in Deut. 15:9, because of the fear that creditors would not get their money back.
He therefore introduced the Prozbul, whereby lenders transferred their debts to the court and collected them after the seventh year as agents of the court. The word Prozbul is said to derive from pros buli ubuti – “an enactment for the rich and the poor”.
Enactments were also made by community councils, based on a precedent in Talmudic times whereby the b’nai ha’ir, “the townspeople”, regulated prices, wages, weights and measures, etc. The question is, however, how it could be acceptable for lay people to legislate for their community?
Biblical passages cited include Deut. 17:14-20 concerning the prerogatives of the king and I Sam. 8, indicating that the king’s powers derived from the people. Community enactments were nonetheless subject to endorsement by the leading rabbi of the community, and the rabbis did at times exercise a veto.