Gifts for the Poor

 

 
  Ruth the Moabite gathering sheaves of grain in Boaz's field
(Gustave Dore, France 1880)
This is the season that we at Neot Kedumim teach about the festival of Shavuot and its different names (Festival of the Harvest, Festival of the First Fruits, Festival of the Giving of Torah and The Festival of Weeks/Pentecost). We make every effort to include in tours of Neot Kedumim a visit to the fields and the harvesting of wheat.

With harvesting, we are able to present how the Torah dealt with the concept of gifts for the poor – in essence, with the issue of poverty.

While these are technically called “gifts,” in order to receive them, the poor person must work to receive them, and the more he works, the more he will receive, thus enabling him to support himself respectably. This stands in contrast to what is generally accepted today – that it is the responsibility of the state to worry about the welfare of the poor.

The Torah refers to five “gifts for the poor,” only three of which are directly related to agriculture: gleaning , the corners of fields, and the forgotten harvest.

  • Gleaning
    If two sheaves of wheat fall during the harvest, the harvester is not allowed to pick them up. Rather, he must leave them for the poor that are following him and gleaning. If he drops three sheaves or more, he is allowed to pick them up.
  • The corners of the field
    Farmers are not allowed to harvest their entire fields, they must leave the edges of the field unreaped for the poor. The Talmudic Sages decreed that 1/60 of every field should be left not harvested for the poor.
  • Forgotten Harvest
    This is the best of the “gifts” for the poor. If the owner of a field and the reapers forget a bundle of grain, the Torah teaches that they must leave it behind for the poor. If they forget more than one bundle, then the owner of the field may go back and retrieve it.

Three central questions arise from the biblical account:

  1. What exactly is a “poor person”? What is the poverty line?
    The poverty line during the Mishnaic period (c. 200 BCE – 200 CE) was 200 zuzim, which was not mortgaged. A person was not required to sell his home in order to reach the 200 zuzim.

    However, if a person has only 50 zuzim, but he uses that money towards a business venture, the the Mishna (Peah 8.9) teaches that he is not entitled to receive “gifts for the poor.”

    This distinction made by the Torah and the Mishna actually demands involvement and a responsibility by the owners of fields as well as the poor, by the wealthy for the poor, and of the poor people to themselves. While reading this Mishna, one cannot help but to see a similarity between this responsibility and the tremendous alienation that exists in Israeli society today.

  2. How did the poor gather from the harvest?
    The Mishna (Peah 4:4) taught that poor could glean only with their hands. Tools were not permitted for gleaning to avoid anyone getting injured if they started fighting over the gleanings.

  3. When (and how often) were the poor permitted to come to the fields?
    The Mishna (Peah 4:5) teaches that the poor were allowed to glean three times a day. In the morning, for nursing mothers, at mid-day, for babies,a nd at sunset for the infirm.

The Jerusalem Talmud to this particular Mishna presented a very picturesque description of those who came to glean. “In the morning, for poor nursing mothers who need time to glean the wheat, to grind it, bake it and eat; at mid-day, for children who were not awake in the early morning, and later the elderly come, who arrive only late in the day because they walk slowly.”

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