Here’s Why Half-Eaten Figs Make Me Smile

A Southern Jewish Story of Tzedakah... For The Birds

It was mid-summer, and the figs on the two fig trees in our yard were starting to ripen.

Finding two healthy fig trees on our property was an unexpected bonus when we moved from California to North Florida. I love trees [my specialized license plate reads “Trees Are Cool”], and especially fruit trees. So finding the two producing fig trees at our new home was one of the many benefits of moving to this area.

One morning our first summer here, as I was pouring my coffee, I looked out the kitchen window and saw a beautiful yellow and red bird, about the size of a sparrow, in one of the fig trees, hungrily pecking away at a big ripe fig. I stood there quietly, watching the bird enjoy the fig. Was she a mother, looking to feed a newly-hatched brood of hungry chicks? Or was she just enjoying food herself?

One of the reasons we left California and moved to a small town in the Florida Panhandle was to find a quieter, slower pace of life. Being able to watch this bird enjoying a fig was representative of our new peaceful lifestyle: a bit of undisturbed nature, sharing a moment, right in our own backyard.

Then it struck me: We were handed a blessing of these two fruit trees, which I did not plant – they were just here – a creation of God. So, if God provided us these trees, who am I to deny sharing the fruit of these trees with the birds? Was God not providing for them, as well as for us?

This got me thinking about the gleanings, and the leaving a portion of your field unharvested as a form of tzedakah so the poor can gather the surplus crops.

The well-known requirement to not completely harvest your fields and leave the gleanings of the field for the poor is found in Leviticus 23:22, part of what is sometimes called the “Holiness Code”:

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.

 There is a similar injunction regarding vineyards:

“You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard. ”(Leviticus 19:10).

Centuries ago, when societies were primarily agrarian, this requirement had widespread application. Most people grew their own food, shared the surplus with family members and neighbors, or took the surplus to a market for sale or trade.  But what is the application of this requirement in modern Jewish society?

Few of us are commercial farmers, and except for maybe a backyard vegetable garden, very few of us actually grow our own food. In our modern urbanized society, food is purchased at the supermarket, or we eat at a restaurant.

Our trees produce plenty of figs, for us and for the birds. I pick a bunch for myself, mostly from the lower branches, and leave many more for our avian friends. For me, this is nothing more than respecting nature. Unlike humans, animals in the wild cannot just go to the supermarket and stock up on a week’s supply of food. They have to find their own sources of food everyday, or go hungry. So who am I to decide whether a bird should not be able to enjoy the figs with me?

The commandment to leave a portion of your fields unharvested and the gleanings for the poor was clearly meant as a form of tzedakah for people. But what about gleanings for animals?

As Jews, we are required to treat animals as kindly as possible. This includes resting working animals on Shabbat [Exodus 20:8], and ritual slaughter of animals so as to inflict the least amount of pain [“shechita”]. It’s also forbidden to take eggs or baby birds from a nest in the presence of the mother bird [Deuteronomy 22:6].

I am not a farmer. We buy our food at the supermarket each week. We do not depend on the figs for our livelihood, or survival.

So I leave the fig trees uncovered, and let the birds feast on their share of the bounty. I am not upset when I see the many partially-eaten figs on the trees – these are the “edges” of my “field” that I am sharing with the birds, whose sweet songs and beauty enrich our lives. It’s part of my way of fulfilling mitzvot, of gleaning, of respecting animals; a simple way to honor ancient traditions, adapted for my modern Southern Jewish life.

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