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A Mitzvah Restored to Glory

The upcoming holy day of Shavuot is closely associated with the command to leave part of our agricultural harvest for the poor. This mitzva still applies today. Most of us are not farmers. Yet all of us have the opportunity and the responsibility to perform it.

We will soon complete Sefirat HaOmer, the seven week count from Pesach, which commemorates the exodus from Egypt, to Shavuot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah. Many of us will celebrate Shavuot by devoting the entire night to the study of Torah. Yet the portion of the Torah which commands us to celebrate Shavuot says nothing about the holy day being associated with the giving of the Torah. It commands us to bring sacrifices specific to the day and to bring the Bikkurim (first fruits) to the Beit Hamikdash (Temple). The portion on Shavuot concludes: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not cut completely the corner of your field when you reap. You shall not gather the gleaning of your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and the convert. I am Hashem your G-d.” (Vayikra – Leviticus 23:8)

The Rambam (Maimonides) in his Sefer HaMitzvot (Book of the Commandments) lists thirteen mitzvot, seven positive and six negative associated with the requirement to leave a portion of our harvest for the poor. They include 1) Peah – leaving produce at the edge of one’s field to be harvested by the poor. While there is no minimum amount stated in the Torah the Rabbis established a minimum of 1/60 of the produce. 2) Leket – What falls from the sickle or one’s hand during the harvest must be left for the poor. 3) Shikcha – A pile of produce that was forgotten during the harvest must be left behind for the poor.

How these mitzvot were fulfilled is most beautifully described in the Book of Ruth, which we read on Shavuot. Ruth was a Moabite widow who insisted on accompanying her once wealthy but now impoverished mother-in-law, Naomi, to Israel to live as a Jew. Ruth meets her soon to be husband, Naomi’s cousin Boaz, while gleaning in his field. They became the ancestors of the greatest family in all of history as the great grandparents of King David.

In a largely agricultural society, requiring farmers to set aside a portion of their crop was an effective means for providing for the poor. But is it still effective in a largely urbanized society? Our scholars have dealt with this question over the years.

The Rambam (Mishna Torah Laws of Gifts to the Poor 1:10) wrote that the mitzvah is to leave produce for the poor not for animals and birds. So long as the poor are not present to ask for these gifts we are not required to leave them.

The Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law Yoreh Deah 332:1), written by Rabbi Joseph Caro, which is considered authoritative by Sephardic Jews, ruled that if there are no Jewish poor present to collect the peah, leket and shikcha there is no requirement to leave it. The Rama (Rabbi Moshe Isserles), whose rulings are accepted by Ashkenazic Jews, agreed, adding that nowadays these laws do not apply since most of the poor are non-Jews.

In more recent times, the Chazon Ish (Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz, a leading 20th century scholar) wrote that “even if everyone were to keep these laws today it would not be worthwhile for the poor to collect it.”

The common thread between these scholars seems to be that in today’s society the distance of the poor from farmland, the amount that the poor would be able to collect and the expense and effort involved in transporting the produce and preparing it to eat mean that only a small portion of the produce would go to the Jewish poor and that much of it would go to waste.

While these laws are no longer practical in today’s urbanized society, it is still incumbent upon us to provide sustenance for the poor.

Today, may farmers in Israel, fulfill the mitzvah by donating their surplus crops to Leket Israel, an organization which collects them and distributes them to the poor. Leket has collected more than 25,000 tons of fruits and vegetables that would otherwise have gone to waste and provides more than 1.7 million nutritious meals to close to a quarter of a million people in need.

In the New York area organizations like Masbia and the various Tomchei Shabbos programs provide meals for tens of thousands of families in need.

Organizations like Leket Israel, Masbia and Tomchei Shabbos are not just helping the poor. They are giving all of us the opportunity to once again perform the mitzvot of peah, leket and shikcha in all their glory.

Fulfillment of the mitzvot of peah, shikcha and leket led to the marriage of Ruth and Boaz and saved the Jewish people. Their descendants include King David, Rabbi Judah HaNasi, the compiler of the Mishna who saved the Torah for posterity, and many other luminaries. May our fulfillment of these precious mitzvot by giving our money and our time to organizations like Leket Israel, Masbia and Tomchei Shabbos lead to our redemption with the coming of the ultimate descendant of Ruth and Boaz, the Mashiach, in our days.

About the Author
Manny Behar is the Former Executive Director of the Queens Jewish Community Council and was a senior aide to several public officials. He currently lives in the Talpiot neighborhood of Jerusalem
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