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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Attitudes towards the Poor

Baal haTurim's second comment draws two lessons from the juxtaposition of the laws concerning agricultural support for the poor (Leviticus 19:9-10) and the law against theft and deceit (19:11). The first, that not giving is like theft from the poor, was alluded to in the Sifra and will be elucidated even more by Rabbi Moses Alshikh (see below).

The second comment, that the poor person is warned not to take more than what is appropriate, addresses the general need for equitable distribution so that one poor person does not, in effect, "steal" scarce resources from another by taking too much. It also responds to the (usually exaggerated but nevertheless) corrosive fear of poor people taking advantage of the system.

Pe'ah and The Nature of Property Ownership

R. Moses Alshikh (a sixteenth-century commentator) responds more generally to the issue of who, or more precisely, when one owns property. Writing, as it were, in God's voice, Alshikh wrote in his commentary Torat Moshe: 

"You shouldn't think that you are giving to the poor person from your own property, or that I have despised him by not giving bread to him as I have given to you.  For he is also my child, just as you are, but his portion is in your produce. 

"It is for your merit that I have intended to give his/her portion from your hand. And this is the reason why the beginning of the verse 'When you reap' is plural, but the end 'you shall not reap all the way' is singular. At the beginning it uses the plural 'the harvest of your [plural] land,' ['your' meaning belonging to] the owner, the poor, and the stranger, for in truth, their portion is there [in the field]. 

One is to gain merit by accepting one's responsibility to distribute a portion of the resources with which one has been entrusted. One does not even own one's income until one has separated out the portion for the poor; one holds them briefly in trust for the poor. The challenge is to consider one's tzedakah like the taxes that are withheld from income; it never really was yours anyway.

Defying Despair

Perhaps the most pointed reading of the peculiar switch from plural to singular comes from R. Hayyim Ibn Attar (an eighteenth-century Moroccan commentator) who wrote in his commentary, Or haHayyim: 

"'When you reap the harvest' begins in the plural and concludes in the singular 'you shall not reap all the way.' This is intended to contradict the opinion of one who mistakenly says that since there is not enough for all of the poor, he does not have to give, like one who might say 'Why should I give this [little corner] when there are a hundred [poor people] in front of me?'  For this reason, God commanded in the singular to say that even one individual has the obligation to give pe'ah."

Perhaps no aspect of the ongoing effort to create a just society creates a greater challenge than the despair engendered by the magnitude of the problem. According to Ibn Attar, the thought that one's individual efforts just do not matter is simply a mistake. Every individual is obligated to be part of the solution.

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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.