“You shall not sleep in the garment given you as the pledge. You shall give the pledge back by sunset, so that your neighbor may sleep in the cloak and bless you; and it will be to your credit before the LORD your God. (Deut. 24:12-13)
Apparently it was customary in Near Eastern societies for the more powerful to distrain garments as a pledge or payment for a debt. We’ve even found a 7th cent. BC inscription just south of Tel Aviv where a reaper complains of this very act. The Torah (both here and in Ex. 22) frowns on this practice; while it does not prohibit it outright, it limits it and all but shames it out of existence.
Fast forward to the 21st century CE, to my wardrobe, which contains, at a guess, 40 shirts of various kinds, a half dozen jackets or coats, several sweaters and blankets, pairs of pants of varying girths, numerous changes of underwear . . . you get the idea. Suffice it to say that if a creditor were to take one of these from me, it would not substantially increase his leverage. One of the benefits of reading the literature of antiquity is the sobering perspective it gives you on how much more stuff we have.
Yet for all our crammed closets, we still use the phrase, “He’d give you the shirt off his back” to describe a paragon of generosity. We do so because of the intimacy of clothing, and our vulnerability without it. How much more vulnerable is the debtor of the Torah, for whom the distrained garment is “his only clothing, the sole covering for his skin; in what else shall he sleep?” (Ex.22:26)
Sensitivity also extends to the collection of a pledge of any kind: “When you make your neighbor a loan of any kind, you shall not go into the house to take the pledge. You shall wait outside, while the person to whom you are making the loan brings the pledge out to you.” (Deut. 24:10-11) The creditor should not humiliate the debtor, but respect his personal space.