A New Look At Philanthropy

The commandment to leave behind some of the harvest for the poor challenges our assumptions about to whom the food belongs in the first place.

Commentary on Parashat Achrei Mot-Kedoshim, Leviticus 16:1 - 20:27

Commentary on Parshat Kedoshim: Leviticus 19:1-20:27

Provided by KOLEL–The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning, which is affiliated with Canada’s Reform movement.


Kedoshim literally means “holy things,” and this parsha is a list of behaviors that are either holy or not holy. These laws are both ethical and religious, and sometimes both, as in the prohibitions against certain kinds of incest. Other famous laws in this section include the prohibition against putting a “stumbling block” before the blind, and the commandment to “love your fellow human as yourself.” Israel is commanded to be holy just as Israel’s God is Holy.

new look at philanthropyIn Focus

“When you reap the harvest of your land, do not completely reap the corners of the field, and do not gather the gleanings of the harvest. Do not completely glean your vineyard, nor gather all the fallen grapes, but leave them behind for the poor and the stranger — I am Adonai your God” (Leviticus 19:9-10).


This beautiful commandment is called peah, which means “corner.” One who is gathering their harvest leaves a portion for the poor to gather. There are two parts to this mitzvah (commandment): one is leaving some of the grain or produce just as it is for the poor to gather, and the next part is leaving some on the ground, after it is fallen, and not picking up every last bit.


If we took these verses absolutely literally, we would learn a powerful moral teaching about setting aside some of our resources to help those in need. However, we can also infer that the creation of a caring, interdependent community is a greater priority than strict property rights — for ultimately, the land belongs to God, not its human steward. We see a similar idea in the laws of the Shemitah (Sabbatical) and Yovel (Jubilee) years, described in Leviticus 25.

The 16th-century Sephardic commentator Moshe Alshich notes that ascribing ownership of the land to God reduces the tensions caused by social inequality between rich and poor: Both are really equal before God. Just as the rich person employs laborers to cut his grain, stack his wheat, and so on, so we are all God’s laborers. [i.e., God “employs” the better-off in the job of providing for the poor.] But when performing this commandment, God describes the land as if it were “yours…”

The Torah could have continued by saying: “it shall be for the poor and the stranger.” By using the phrase “leave them behind,” the Torah emphasizes the stranger and poor person’s prior claim to these gleanings and leavings.

God wants the farmer to treat the poor respectfully, not to rob them of dignity. Therefore, “leave them behind” — you are not giving a handout, but you will simply leave it, they will help themselves. “Don’t completely glean” is the fact that you do not complete the harvest, which is the signal to the poor person that he is taking what he is entitled to, not what the farmer decides to give him.

The anonymity of the recipient — since the farmer does not know who picks his field — is what preserves the poor person’s dignity. (Adapted from R. Moshe Alshich on the Torah, translated by E. Munk.)

While I cannot claim to have policy expertise in the realm of social welfare, I think that the dignity of the poor is something rarely considered in many current assistance programs. Food is not a privilege to be handed out according to the mood of the wealthy, but a right, regardless of social standing or status. The needy have a “prior claim” to a certain level of sustenance — if the better off don’t provide the “corners of their fields,” they themselves would be guilty of taking something that is not theirs by right.

This is a whole different way of looking at philanthropy — a person may indeed be generous, but up to a certain point, material things don’t really belong to us in the first place. Rather, a Jewish perspective on material goods sees such resources as being loaned to us for the privilege of bringing about good things. (Maybe that’s why they’re called “goods!”)

We are all stewards on God’s land, as it were. This is not to impugn anybody’s generosity, not at all. The commandment of peah challenges us to think about the distinction between generosity–which might mean “going above and beyond”–and basic obligations, which are incumbent upon all who can meet them.

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