Pe'ah: The Corners of Our Fields

Rabbinic commentators interpreted the law of leaving the corners of one's field for those in need in light of their own concerns about the poor.

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Tzedakah and Agriculture in the Bible

The Bible's model of tzedakah (social justice and support) included a variety of agricultural gifts. Grain and produce that were left or forgotten during the harvest were available for the poor to glean. The corners of the fields (pe'ah) were also designated for the poor. A biblical source for these laws comes from Leviticus 19:9-11: 

"When you [plural] reap the harvest of your land, you [singular] shall not reap all the way to the corner of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest.  You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger; I the Lord am your God.  You shall not steal; you shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another."corner field

"Corners?" How Pe'ah Works

Rashi, the famous eleventh-century French exegete, quotes a midrash (a rabbinic interpretation) from the Sifra (an early midrashic work on Leviticus) on the phrase "you shall not reap all the way to the corner." He refers to the law that pe'ah is not actually given from the corners, but rather, one should leave one's "pe'ah" at the end of the field.

The full text of the Sifra to which Rashi refers (Kedoshim 1:10) explains:

"Thus says Rabbi Shimon: They said that a person must leave pe'ah only at the end of the field for four reasons--because of theft from the poor, wasting the time of the poor, for the sake of appearances and because the Torah states 'You shall not reap all the way to the corner of your field.'

How is it theft from the poor? This way, the farmer will not find an opportune time to say to a poor relative 'come and take all of the pe'ah for yourself' [giving the relative an unfair advantage over the other poor people who are equally entitled to pe'ah]."

Although Jewish law does give higher priority to helping one's relatives than to helping others, some aspects of tzedakah need to be kept open for all of the poor, lest those without families go unsupported.

"How [does it prevent] wasting the time of the poor? This way, the poor people will not be sitting around and watching all day saying, 'Now he is about to designate pe'ah.' Rather, they can go and collect gleanings from another field and return at the end of the harvest."

People often assume that the unemployed needy have time and can wait for the donor to give whenever it is convenient, but R. Shimon makes it clear that the poor need even more consideration since it is so difficult to gather support from multiple sources.

"How [does it prevent] a negative appearance? This way, passers by will not say "look how so-and-so harvested his field but did not leave any pe'ah for the poor.

And because the Torah states, 'You shall not reap all the way to the corner of your field.'"

While we tend to think of an ideal of anonymous giving, this comment points out the importance of transparent, public giving. Knowing that other people are giving is crucial in order to maintain widespread support for any system of support.

The "You" To Whom The Commandment is Directed

The obvious shift from the Hebrew plural "you" in the first phrase ("When you reap") to the singular "you" in the second phrase ("…you shall not reap all the way") serves as an exegetical hook for several different commentaries. R. Jacob b. Asher (a thirteenth-century Spanish commentator), the son of the Rosh and the author of the Arba'ah Turim, wrote in his commentary (Baal haTurim):

"'When you [plural] reap.'  Read it as 'uv'kutzr--khem' [separating the part indicating that the verb refers to 'you' in the plural] 'in the harvest, khem [referring to the numerical value of the two Hebrew letters, 60]' that one must leave 1/60 which is the minimum amount for pe'ah…

"To the poor and stranger leave them' is put next to 'You shall not steal' to warn the owner not to steal from what belongs to the poor. Similarly, the poor person is warned not to steal from the owners by taking more than what is appropriate."

Minimum Levels of Giving

Baal haTurim's interpretation uses gematria, in which the various Hebrew letters have numerical values. Although his comment might seem playful, it allows him to emphasize an important aspect of the law of pe'ah that is sometimes ignored. The first mishnah, or unit, in the talmudic tractate Pe'ah (a paragraph that is recited each morning in the traditional liturgy) announces that there is no prescribed amount for giving pe'ah. Less well known is the second mishnah, which states, "Even though they said that pe'ah has no prescribed amount, one does not give less than one sixtieth." Ideally, the idea that one will be self-motivated to give appropriately is appealing, but practically, people need to know that a certain level of giving is just too low.

Attitudes towards the Poor

Baal haTurim's second comment draws two lessons from the juxtaposition of the laws concerning agricultural support for the poor (Leviticus 19:9-10) and the law against theft and deceit (19:11). The first, that not giving is like theft from the poor, was alluded to in the Sifra and will be elucidated even more by Rabbi Moses Alshikh (see below).

The second comment, that the poor person is warned not to take more than what is appropriate, addresses the general need for equitable distribution so that one poor person does not, in effect, "steal" scarce resources from another by taking too much. It also responds to the (usually exaggerated but nevertheless) corrosive fear of poor people taking advantage of the system.

Pe'ah and The Nature of Property Ownership

R. Moses Alshikh (a sixteenth-century commentator) responds more generally to the issue of who, or more precisely, when one owns property. Writing, as it were, in God's voice, Alshikh wrote in his commentary Torat Moshe: 

"You shouldn't think that you are giving to the poor person from your own property, or that I have despised him by not giving bread to him as I have given to you.  For he is also my child, just as you are, but his portion is in your produce. 

"It is for your merit that I have intended to give his/her portion from your hand. And this is the reason why the beginning of the verse 'When you reap' is plural, but the end 'you shall not reap all the way' is singular. At the beginning it uses the plural 'the harvest of your [plural] land,' ['your' meaning belonging to] the owner, the poor, and the stranger, for in truth, their portion is there [in the field]. 

One is to gain merit by accepting one's responsibility to distribute a portion of the resources with which one has been entrusted. One does not even own one's income until one has separated out the portion for the poor; one holds them briefly in trust for the poor. The challenge is to consider one's tzedakah like the taxes that are withheld from income; it never really was yours anyway.

Defying Despair

Perhaps the most pointed reading of the peculiar switch from plural to singular comes from R. Hayyim Ibn Attar (an eighteenth-century Moroccan commentator) who wrote in his commentary, Or haHayyim: 

"'When you reap the harvest' begins in the plural and concludes in the singular 'you shall not reap all the way.' This is intended to contradict the opinion of one who mistakenly says that since there is not enough for all of the poor, he does not have to give, like one who might say 'Why should I give this [little corner] when there are a hundred [poor people] in front of me?'  For this reason, God commanded in the singular to say that even one individual has the obligation to give pe'ah."

Perhaps no aspect of the ongoing effort to create a just society creates a greater challenge than the despair engendered by the magnitude of the problem. According to Ibn Attar, the thought that one's individual efforts just do not matter is simply a mistake. Every individual is obligated to be part of the solution.

Ancient Texts, Enduring Concerns

Why should one look at classical sources interpreting laws from an agrarian society that bears so little in common with our own? Precisely because the classical commentators were facing the same difficulty, and succeeded in learning valuable, contemporary lessons through their efforts. As the midrash Tanchuma (Ki Tavo 4) comments:

"One should not say, 'If the Holy Blessed One had given me a field, I would have given my charitable gifts from it, but now that I don't have a field, I won't give anything.' The Holy Blessed One said, 'See what I wrote in my Torah, "You are blessed in the city," (Deuteronomy 28:3) for those who live in the city; "…you are blessed in the field" for those who have fields."

Jewish tradition understands that social and economic realities change, and the nature of our support for the poor needs to take those changes into consideration. What is striking is how relevant and applicable the concerns of these commentaries from the third through eighteenth centuries are to modern times.

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.