Our duty to help others
In this week’s parasha we find one of the sources for how the Torah defines social action, based on our obligations and responsibility to those in need.
“And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I Adonai am your God.” (Lev 23:22). You may also be familiar with this verse from its association with the Book of Ruth (which we read on Shavuot).
This text developed into the formation of laws of gifts to the poor when a person harvests their field or orchards, in the tractate Pe’ah in the Mishnah, as well as commentary on that tractate in the Jerusalem Talmud. The same tractate also contains laws of giving charity in general.
In the Tosefta Pe’ah (an additional compilation of oral law from the late Mishnaic period), we learn that Rabbi Shimon said, “Because of four things the Torah said that a person should only give Pe’ah (corners of the field) in the end of his field (and not in the middle or in the beginning relative to where he began to harvest from). Because of theft from the poor, and because of wasting time of the poor, and because of suspicion, and because of cheaters”.
What is meant by ‘theft from the poor’? That the owner should not see a time when there are no people there and he will say to a poor person who is his relative, ‘Come and take this Pe’ah for yourself.’
What is ‘wasting time of the poor’ referring to? That the poor will not have to sit and watch the field the whole day, but rather since the owner gives it at the end of his harvest of the field, the poor person will go and do his work, and then come and take.
‘Because of suspicion’ means that passersby should not say, ‘Look at so and so that he harvested his field and did not leave from it Pe’ah’.
And ‘because of cheaters’? That people should not say, ‘We already gave Pe’ah’. This is supplemented by a further explanation that the farmer should not leave the good portion of the crops for himself and give Pe’ah from the bad portion of the crops.
Rabbi Shimon’s explanations of these four remarks help to support the ideals of public or open giving. While they do not match the ideals of anonymous giving (amongst the highest levels of tzedakah), they help us to acknowledge that all types of giving are important. Moreover, given that they are public acts of giving, they help to drive awareness of support for the less fortunate and needy, and encourage others to do the same (mitzvah goreret mitzvah – one good promotes the performance of another good deed).
Maintaining the dignity of those who we provide support to is also paramount. To embarrass them or make them feel inferior goes against the ideals of tzedakah. It may seem that the system of Pe’ah does not substantiate that notion, but we learn that Pe’ah is not considered a hand-out. Those who choose to partake are still required to gather the crops and process them, just as the farmer would. Tzedakah and giving charity are indeed important tasks and essential to the survival of all of us (even a person who receives charity is required to give to others who are in need).
The importance of Pe’ah has also found its way into our daily prayers, with a passage from the Mishnah that we read at the beginning of Shacharit; “These are the deeds for which there is no maximum measure, leaving crops at the corner of the field for the poor (Pe’ah), offering first fruits as a gift to the Temple (Bikkurim), bringing special offerings to the Temple on the three Festivals (Rei’ayon), doing deeds of lovingkindness (Gemilut Chasadim), and studying Torah (Talmud Torah)” (Pe’ah 1:1).
Including Pe’ah in the list of deeds that have no maximum measure (in other words, there is no upper limit to how much importance we should place on them), upholds its importance in our tradition and reminds us of our duty to help others, while being considerate of the role it plays in our heritage.
Reverend Sam Zwarenstein
7 Ocean Street
Woollahra, NSW 2025
p: 02 9389 6444
Shabbat, January 30, 2021
17th of Sh’vat, 5781
Friday, January 29 2021 7:44PM
Motzei Shabbat 8:20PM
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