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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"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).

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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.