Thursday, February 4, 2016

Shirt Off The Back

There are two common, related idioms that have distinct and opposite meanings: 1) giving the shirt off one’s back and 2) taking the shirt off one’s back. The former refers to an act of outstanding generosity; the latter is often regarded as an act of greed.

The origin of these related phrases, more specifically the latter phrase, might just be Exodus 22:25. Referring to a lender, the Torah states: “If you take your neighbor’s garment as security, you shall return it to him until sunset, for it is his only covering. It is his garment for his skin. With what shall he live? And it shall be [that] if he cries out to Me [God], I will hear because I am gracious” (Exodus 22:25-26).

When a person is owed money, and the debtor is slow to pay, it is easy to understand why a creditor can become angry. The Torah does not deny the creditor the right to claim an article deposited as security for the debt. It does, however, deny the creditor the right to humiliate the debtor, or to hinder his/her ability to earn enough money to repay the debt.

In a related discussion, the sages clarify why there are two similar verses on the same topic in the Torah. Exodus 22:25 refers to an article worn by day, which can be held by the creditor during the night. On the other hand, the verse in Deuteronomy 24:13 - “You shall surely restore to him the pledge when the sun goes down, that he may sleep in his garment, and bless you” - refers to a garment normally worn at night.

In Western society, being in debt is often seen as a negative reflection of a person’s character. However, in Judaism, being in debt is simply regarded as a person’s financial situation. These biblical injunctions demonstrate the importance that the Torah places on upholding the dignity of every person.

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