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."

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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.