Debt collection in absentia: Halakhah in a mobile and commercial age
Rosensweig, Michael S.
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The Talmud reflects a predominantly agricultural and sedentary life style. Halakhic activities that presupposed physical presence operated efficiently in this world. The shift to a commercial and mobile society in the medieval period, however, rendered the presumption of presence highly questionable.;While the impact of changing conditions was evident in any number of areas affecting medieval Jewish life, debt collection was particularly pressured by these economic and social transformations. Moreover, the increased frequency and longer durations of travel that exacerbated this critical process occurred just as the role of credit became more central. Geonic and medieval halakhic literature unequivocally reflects the problems and urgency of debt collection.;While the effort to enhance the efficiency of debt collection in a commercial and mobile society took numerous forms, the most effective and attractive option was to sanction collection from the absent debtor's local assets. This dissertation examines the halakhic history of collection in absentia, as well as the economic and social context of different Jewish communities in which the legal developments took place.;The legality of this solution occupied halakhists throughout the geonic and medieval eras. Halakhic authorities were hardly of one mind in their interpretation of the Talmudic passage that addresses this issue and its relationship to a parallel discussion in Talmud Yerushalmi. In the ninth century, R. Amram Gaon seriously restricted the license of collection in absentia to cases of obvious debt evasion. The geonic policy was challenged by the scholars of Qayrawan and vigorously defended by R. Hai and R. Hananel, each in an innovative fashion, in the eleventh century. Rif's sanction of collection in absentia represented a shift in halakhic policy. While Rif's ruling was still controversial in Egypt and Marseilles in the twelfth century, it achieved absolute dominance in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Spain. The focus of halakhic discussion then shifted to an examination of implementation guidelines and other applications. An analysis of these developments demonstrates that while economic and social forces served a critical function in highlighting the issues, it was primarily internal halakhic considerations that determined the fate of different doctrines.