Gleanings

Obligations to the Poor at Harvest Time.

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Provided by the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative rabbinical seminary and university of Jewish studies.

Words often conceal the origins of the idea they denote. Etymology and meaning diverge and thus confound. A good example relates to a halakhic fragment in this week's parashah. I refer to the verb "to glean." The word denotes minimal gain through hard work. Basically an agricultural term, it conjures up an image of beggars at harvest time gathering whatever remains in the field after reaping. From there the meaning expands to any activity, physical or mental, that involves collecting painstakingly individual items of the same order from disparate quarters.

The etymology of the word "glean" may be medieval English or even Celtic, but the idea itself hails directly from the Torah, but one of many scattered throughout the fabric of western civilization. Without the biblical context, the social value that inheres in the word remains unilluminated. The practice of leaving gleanings in the field for the poor is adramatic example of the extent to which faith is a seedbed for charity in Judaism and later in Christianity.

In our parashah, we read an abbreviated version of a law first enunciated in last week's parashah. "And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the Lord am your God" (Leviticus 23:22). Omitted is the parallel injunction pertaining to the harvesting of your vineyard: "You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard"(19:10).

Bearing the Plight

The spirit of both verses is identical: at the very moment when we are overcome with a sense of entitlement, we should bear the plight of others less fortunate in mind. No matter how hard we labored and worried to bring in this harvest, it does not belong wholly to us. Our personal blessing carries a measure of social responsibility. God forbids us from harvesting our crop down to the last stalk or shoot. There are first some with holding taxes to be paid.

According to the Mishnah, they take three forms: leqet, shikheha and peah. Leqet consists of gleanings dropped while harvesting. Shikheha comprises that which is inadvertently left behind in the field when the crop is transferred indoors, a sheaf of wheat or a bundle of hay. Both leqet and shikheha then pass into the public domain, irretrievably. As for peah, it is a portion of the field, at least one-sixtieth, not to be harvested at all, but left standing for the indigent. In sum, the Rabbis render concrete the ethical impulse that engendered the biblical injunction.

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Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch served as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.