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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Ancient Texts, Enduring Concerns

Why should one look at classical sources interpreting laws from an agrarian society that bears so little in common with our own? Precisely because the classical commentators were facing the same difficulty, and succeeded in learning valuable, contemporary lessons through their efforts. As the midrash Tanchuma (Ki Tavo 4) comments:

"One should not say, 'If the Holy Blessed One had given me a field, I would have given my charitable gifts from it, but now that I don't have a field, I won't give anything.' The Holy Blessed One said, 'See what I wrote in my Torah, "You are blessed in the city," (Deuteronomy 28:3) for those who live in the city; "…you are blessed in the field" for those who have fields."

Jewish tradition understands that social and economic realities change, and the nature of our support for the poor needs to take those changes into consideration. What is striking is how relevant and applicable the concerns of these commentaries from the third through eighteenth centuries are to modern times.

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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.