Seder Zeraim (Agriculture)
Though most Jews no longer live in an agricultural society, some of the mishnaic laws related to agriculture remain directly relevant for contemporary urban and suburban lives.
Most of Seder Zeraim receives less attention in the Diaspora, because its laws only apply inside the Land of Israel. There is no Babylonian Talmud on Seder Zeraim (with the notable exception of the much-studied tractate on Berakhot (“blessings”).
The average contemporary reader will find Seder Zeraim fairly puzzling, if not irrelevant. As the name (“Seeds”) suggests, this section of the Mishnah focuses on agricultural laws, hardly the most pressing topic for most of today's urban and suburban Jews. However, the dedication of an entire seder of the Mishnah to agricultural issues reminds us the extent to which Judaism emerged out of an agriculturally-based community.
While individual agricultural laws may have lost their direct relevance for many of us, discussions about religious governance of what was once a central part of everyday life can guide our own explorations of the role of Judaism in our everyday lives.
The Themes of Seder Zeraim
The Jewish agricultural laws, as expressed in the Mishnah and in other rabbinic sources, suggest a belief that one's land and produce is never entirely one's own. Six of the 11 masekhtot (tractates) that make up Seder Zeraim concern the obligation to dedicate a certain percentage of one's produce to sustaining the kohanim (priests), the Levites (who served in the ancient Temple), and the poor, who do not have land of their own.
One tractate, Peah (“corner”), deals with the obligation to leave some of the harvest of one’s fields for those in need. Tractate Kilayim (“holding back”) addresses a limitation on agricultural production: the Bible prohibits mixing two types of seeds in the same field. Shvi'it (“the seventh year”) focuses on the laws of Shemitah (“release”) during the sabbatical year when farming is prohibited. Orlah (the "uncircumcised" tree), concerns the prohibition against eating from trees that are younger than three years old.
Bikkurim (“first fruits”), discusses the obligation to offer God one's first fruits on the holiday of Shavuot.
In total, all but one of the tractates in Seder Zeraim are devoted to laws limiting production or limiting the grower's ownership of his/her produce. The remaining—and first--tractate, Berakhot, does not deal with agricultural issues at all.
The Law of Peah (Leaving the Corners)
The law of pe'ah (“corner”), discussed in the tractate of the same name, refers to the biblical command, "When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field . . . you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger" (Leviticus 23:22). As is typical, the Mishnah defines more precisely the parameters of a fairly vague biblical law. While the first mishnah (or unit) of tractate Pe'ah declares the commandment regarding pe'ah to be among the obligations for which no upper or lower limit is defined, the second mishnah declares: