Borrowing A Car – And The Fuel?

Question

Yissochor’s sister is getting married
and he needs a car to get about. His friend, Zevulun, is going on a trip
that week and offers to lend him his car. Yissochor receives the car with
a half-full fuel tank. He is so grateful to Zevulun for this favor that he
returns the car with a full tank of fuel. Does this raise a problem of ribbis?


Answer

Firstly, we must distinguish between lending money and
lending other items. When one lends a lawn mower to one’s neighbor, one
expects to receive the same lawn mower back in its original state. This is
known as hash’oloh. However, when one gives a monetary loan one
definitely does not expect to have the same coins and bills returned. The
moment the borrower receives the loan the money becomes his – milveh
l’hotzo’oh nitnoh
(a monetary loan is meant to be spent). In
return, he obligates himself to return the equivalent value at the
due date. Even if he does keep the original coins and gives them to the
lender in repayment of the loan, he is giving him his own money. The same
principle applies to any item which is meant to be consumed (e.g. a packet
of sugar or any other food item). Indeed, if the value of the item has
increased since the time of lending it would be a problem to return the
original item in payment of the loan (see “Interest in borrowed
clothing?” in this series).

Accordingly, when Yissochor borrowed the car with a
half-full fuel tank, we can safely say that he borrowed the car on
condition that he would return it intact to Zevulun on his return.
However, he was certainly not expected to return the fuel in the tank.
Perhaps the fuel was not loaned to him at all? It could be that Zevulun
meant the fuel to be a gift. If this assumption is correct, there would be
no problem if Yissochor returned the car with a full tank. He is merely
giving Zevulun a larger gift than he himself received. Since he was under
no obligation to repay the fuel, there is no question of ribbis. On
the other hand, if Zevulun had stipulated that he expects the fuel to be
returned, it would certainly be ribbis if Yissochor gave him a full
tank of fuel. Even returning the same amount of fuel could be forbidden if
the price had risen in the interim (seoh b’seoh – see “Cross-currency
loans” in this series).

Furthermore, there could even be a problem if Zevulun had not said a
word about returning the fuel. The Chavos Da’as (to Yoreh Deah
160, Note 8) was asked about borrowing money from a Jew who, contrary to Torah
law, always lent money on interest. Would it be permitted to borrow from
him if he made no mention of any obligation to pay interest? The answer
given was that to do so would violate a Torah prohibition and would
constitute ribbis ketzutzah (fixed interest)! Since this person
always lends with interest, any person accepting a loan from him is
assumed to be borrowing on these terms, even if no specific mention was
made of the need to pay interest. We therefore see that any customary
condition is considered to be an integral part of the transaction even if
it is not specifically mentioned. Accordingly, if it is the accepted
custom that anyone who borrows a car returns it with the original amount
of fuel in the tank, all borrowers of cars are obligated to follow this
custom, even if no specific condition is made. Thus, Yissochor could be
obligated to return the fuel although Zevulun never specified such an
obligation. Returning a full tank would then constitute ribbis.