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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People often assume that the unemployed needy have time and can wait for the donor to give whenever it is convenient, but R. Shimon makes it clear that the poor need even more consideration since it is so difficult to gather support from multiple sources.

"How [does it prevent] a negative appearance? This way, passers by will not say "look how so-and-so harvested his field but did not leave any pe'ah for the poor.

And because the Torah states, 'You shall not reap all the way to the corner of your field.'"

While we tend to think of an ideal of anonymous giving, this comment points out the importance of transparent, public giving. Knowing that other people are giving is crucial in order to maintain widespread support for any system of support.

The "You" To Whom The Commandment is Directed

The obvious shift from the Hebrew plural "you" in the first phrase ("When you reap") to the singular "you" in the second phrase ("…you shall not reap all the way") serves as an exegetical hook for several different commentaries. R. Jacob b. Asher (a thirteenth-century Spanish commentator), the son of the Rosh and the author of the Arba'ah Turim, wrote in his commentary (Baal haTurim):

"'When you [plural] reap.'  Read it as 'uv'kutzr--khem' [separating the part indicating that the verb refers to 'you' in the plural] 'in the harvest, khem [referring to the numerical value of the two Hebrew letters, 60]' that one must leave 1/60 which is the minimum amount for pe'ah…

"To the poor and stranger leave them' is put next to 'You shall not steal' to warn the owner not to steal from what belongs to the poor. Similarly, the poor person is warned not to steal from the owners by taking more than what is appropriate."

Minimum Levels of Giving

Baal haTurim's interpretation uses gematria, in which the various Hebrew letters have numerical values. Although his comment might seem playful, it allows him to emphasize an important aspect of the law of pe'ah that is sometimes ignored. The first mishnah, or unit, in the talmudic tractate Pe'ah (a paragraph that is recited each morning in the traditional liturgy) announces that there is no prescribed amount for giving pe'ah. Less well known is the second mishnah, which states, "Even though they said that pe'ah has no prescribed amount, one does not give less than one sixtieth." Ideally, the idea that one will be self-motivated to give appropriately is appealing, but practically, people need to know that a certain level of giving is just too low.

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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.