Seder Zeraim (Agriculture)

Though most Jews no longer live in an agricultural society, some of the mishnaic laws related to agriculture remain directly relevant for contemporary urban and suburban lives.

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Most of Seder Zeraim receives less attention in the Diaspora, because its laws only apply inside the Land of Israel. There is no Babylonian Talmud on Seder Zeraim (with the notable exception of the much-studied tractate on Berakhot (“blessings”).

The average contemporary reader will find Seder Zeraim fairly puzzling, if not irrelevant. As the name (“Seeds”) suggests, this section of the Mishnah focuses on agricultural laws, hardly the most pressing topic for most of today's urban and suburban Jews. However, the dedication of an entire seder of the Mishnah to agricultural issues reminds us the extent to which Judaism emerged out of an agriculturally-based community.

While individual agricultural laws may have lost their direct relevance for many of us, discussions about religious governance of what was once a central part of everyday life can guide our own explorations of the role of Judaism in our everyday lives.

The Themes of Seder Zeraim

The Jewish agricultural laws, as expressed in the Mishnah and in other rabbinic sources, suggest a belief that one's land and produce is never entirely one's own. Six of the 11 masekhtot (tractates) that make up Seder Zeraim concern the obligation to dedicate a certain percentage of one's produce to sustaining the kohanim (priests), the Levites (who served in the ancient Temple), and the poor, who do not have land of their own.

One tractate, Peah (“corner”), deals with the obligation to leave some of the harvest of one’s fields for those in need. Tractate Kilayim (“holding back”) addresses a limitation on agricultural production: the Bible prohibits mixing two types of seeds in the same field. Shvi'it (“the seventh year”) focuses on the laws of Shemitah (“release”) during the sabbatical year when farming is prohibited. Orlah (the "uncircumcised" tree), concerns the prohibition against eating from trees that are younger than three years old.

Bikkurim (“first fruits”), discusses the obligation to offer God one's first fruits on the holiday of Shavuot.

In total, all but one of the tractates in Seder Zeraim are devoted to laws limiting production or limiting the grower's ownership of his/her produce. The remaining—and first--tractate, Berakhot, does not deal with agricultural issues at all.

The Law of Peah (Leaving the Corners)

The law of pe'ah (“corner”), discussed in the tractate of the same name, refers to the biblical command, "When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field . . . you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger" (Leviticus 23:22). As is typical, the Mishnah defines more precisely the parameters of a fairly vague biblical law. While the first mishnah (or unit) of tractate Pe'ah declares the commandment regarding pe'ah to be among the obligations for which no upper or lower limit is defined, the second mishnah declares:

"One may not set aside less than 1/60 of one's land as pe'ah, and even though we have said that pe'ah has no upper or lower limit, everything goes according to the size of the field, according to the number of poor people, and according to the size of the crop" (Mishnah Pe'ah 1:2).

While acknowledging that the Torah leaves the term "edges" undefined, the Mishnah defines the term in such a way as to maintain the spirit of the biblical law. Since the Torah explains pe'ah as a means of sustaining the poor of the community, the Mishnah specifies that the obligation for pe'ah varies according to one's personal wealth and according to the needs of the poor. In this way, the Mishnah transforms a vague commandment into more specific guidelines about the division of one's field.

The Shemitah Year (the Land's Sabbath)

Like the law of pe'ah, the laws of the shemitah year, discussed in Tractate Shvi'it, are based on a biblical command that limits ownership of one's land:

"When you enter the land that I assign you, the land shall observe a sabbath of the Lord. Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard" (Leviticus 25:2-4).

Tractate Shvi'it expands the biblical law of shemitah by defining the beginning and the end of the year, adding to the categories of prohibited agricultural work, and applying the laws of shemitah to fruits and vegetables not mentioned in the Torah. Presumably, as is the case in Tractate Pe'ah, the legal strictures of Tractate Shvi'it aim to preserve the spirit of the biblical law of Shvi'it by eliminating as many loopholes or potential leniencies as possible.

Ma'aserot (Tithing of Produce)

The greatest part of Seder Zeraim is devoted to the laws of ma'aserot (tithing). The obligation to tithe is derived from a series of biblical passages that command the separation of part of one's produce for kohanim, for levites, and for the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The Torah specifies neither the amount of these tithes nor the types of produce subject to these tithes. As is the case throughout Seder Zeraim, the Mishnah transforms the vaguely-stated biblical requirement to tithe into a precise and unambiguous set of laws.

The commandments to tithe are scattered throughout the books of Numbers and Deuteronomy. The relevant verses require giving an unspecified portion of one's bread and of one's sacrifices to the kohanim (Numbers 15:20; Deuteronomy 18:34), giving a portion of the harvest to the Levites, setting aside a tenth of one's produce to be eaten in Jerusalem (Deuteronomy 12:17-19; 14:22-23), setting aside one-tenth of every third year's produce for the poor (Deuteronomy 14:28), and helping to sustain the levites, who have no land of their own (Deuteronomy 12:9; 14:27).

The Order of Tithes

To synthesize these scattered commands into a coherent system, the Mishnah assigns a set order and quantity to each of the tithes. The Mishnah defines the order of the tithes as follows:

Terumah:  A gift to the kohanim of between 1/60th and 1/40th of one's crop

Ma'aser rishon:  A gift to the levites of 1/10th of the crop that remains after

Terumah has been separated. The levite, in turn, gives the kohen 1/10th of this gift.

Ma'aser sheni: During the first, second, fourth and fifth years of the seven-year cycle, 1/10th of the remaining produce is set aside to be brought to Jerusalem and eaten there by owner.

Ma'aser Oni: During the third and sixth years of the seven-year cycle, a tithe for the poor replaces the Ma'aser sheni.

Categories of Produce to be Tithed

The Mishnah is most concerned with defining specific laws for vague biblical commandments. Thus, Tractate Ma'aserot, the tractate that offers general rules about tithes, begins:

"[The sages] established a general rule about ma'aserot: anything that is food and is guarded and grows from the earth is subject to ma'aserot…When do fruits become subject to ma'aserot? Figs from the time they have been gathered and left for twenty-four hours [and are ready to eat], grapes and wild grapes when they begin to mature, sumac and mulberries when they become red, and all the red fruits when they become red."(1:1-2)

The Bible specifies neither the types of produce subject to tithing nor the appropriate time for tithing. The Mishnah eliminates this ambiguity by detailing the process of tithing and by defining the categories of food that need to be tithed.

Tractate Berakhot (Blessings)

As its name suggests, Berakhot focuses on the laws of prayer--the format and order of prayers, the times for reciting certain prayers, and the appropriate blessings for various foods and occasions. It is not clear why this tractate appears in Seder Zeraim. Some suggest that the inclusion in this tractate of blessings over different types of produce justifies its inclusion in the seder devoted to agricultural laws. However, the majority of Tractate Berakhot addresses other issues of prayer and blessing; the fact that some of the blessings included in the tractate are agriculturally-connected does not seem to offer sufficient explanation for the inclusion of this tractate in Seder Zeraim.

The Relevance of Seder Zera'im For Modern Jews

Of the tractates in Seder Zeraim, Tractate Berakhot remains most obviously relevant and most studied today, as prayers and blessings continue to play a central role in Jewish ritual practice. The sixth chapter, which focuses on blessings for different types of food, and the ninth chapter, which designates blessings for certain occasions, are good starting points for explorations of the place of blessings in Judaism, and of the theology that underlies our system of blessings and prayers.

Although we do not observe the laws of pe'ah in the literal sense of leaving the corners of our field for the poor, Tractate Pe'ah remains a powerful statement about our responsibilities to the poor and our relationship to our property. In addition, the general principles laid out in its first chaptercan help us better understand all our obligations regarding giving to those in need. 

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Rabbi Jill Jacobs

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. She previously served as the Rabbi-in-Residence for the Jewish Funds for Justice.