Obligations to the poor at harvest time.

Commentary on Parashat Emor, Leviticus 21:1-24:23

Words often conceal the origins of the idea they denote. Etymology and meaning diverge and thus confound. A good example relates to a halachic (Jewish legal) fragment in this week’s Torah. 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 a dramatic example of the extent to which faith is a seedbed for charity in Judaism and later in Christianity.

In our portion, we read an abbreviated version of a law first enunciated in last week’s portion. “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.

Two other features of that injunction are noteworthy. First, it is largely unenforceable. Compliance is a matter of personal choice. There is no provision for a horde of bureaucrats to sweep through the fields to exercise oversight. Much of what is expected is in fact beyond measure because it is utterly subjective. The ordinance projects an ideal of mutual responsibility attainable only if internalized by each landowning member of the community, which is why the text ends with a resounding reference to God: “I the Lord am your God.” Philanthropy springs from faith. God inspires us to reach beyond ourselves.


Second, the beneficiaries of our idealism include the stranger, who is even more vulnerable than the impoverished native. A touch of universalism informs this vision of society. Charity does not begin strictly athome, a principle on which the book of Ruth turns. Having accompanied her widowed mother-in-law, Naomi, back to Judah, Ruth, a Moabite and also bereft of husband and child, takes to the fields at harvest time to feed them both. She chances to glean on the field of Boaz, a blood relative of Naomi. Boaz takes Ruth in and quickly gains the right to a levirate marriage. Their nobility is duly rewarded with a great grandson named David, who is destined to be ancient Israel’s greatest king. In short, the good that may result from a modest act of charity should never be undervalued.

Ovadyah Sforno, rabbi, humanist, physician and leader of Italian Jewry in the first half of the 16th century, stressed in his Torah commentary the textual context of this charitable ordinance within our Torah portion. He notes that it follows directly upon the passage requiring Israelite farmers to bring to the Temple or tabernacle first fruits, specifically bread made from the new crop of wheat about to be harvested. A token of thanksgiving to God for the bounty of the land, the act releases the produce for human consumption. Precisely at this moment of gratitude, observes Sforno, the pilgrim is reminded to remember the dispossessed when he returns home to harvest the fruits of his labor.

The setting of the text amplifies its meaning. Sforno quotes a cryptic adage to make the point: “The salt of wealth is charity (Babylonian Talmud Ketubot 66a),” that is, to preserve our wealth we need to diminish it through acts of kindness. The Torah warns the farmer in his state of self-satisfaction that God cares as much for the gleaners as for the reapers. The well-off are but divine instruments for alleviating human suffering.

Yet, we should not romanticize the saving power of faith based charity. The life of a gleaner always hung in the balance. The conscience of most landowners obliged them to do no more than the minimum, if that much.

In his highly evocative painting of 1857 (oil on canvas) entitled “The Gleaners,” Jean-Francois Millet captured the grim reality of survival by gleaning. In the foreground, three swarthy, stocky peasant women are bent over trying to salvage a few stalks from the sparse stubble left in the ground. The slimness of the pickings is accentuated by the mountains of hay rising in the distance. Precious little has been left to glean. Millet’s empathy for the peasants does imbue them with a stolid dignity that lifts them above their pain and despair.

Still, Scripture alone could not rectify the inequities of an economic system that put a premium on profit. In a rapidly secularizing age, government would eventually have to step in as the moral arbiter of civil society.

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


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