Second Sedra in Triennial Cycle (Vayikra 22:17 - 23:22)

(Eitz Haim: p. 722; Hertz: p. 517 )


Parashat Emor covers two main subjects: 1) rules for priests in their personal lives and while making sacrifices to God; and 2) the annual holiday cycle with specific dates and key rules for celebrating each holiday.  As the middle year in the triennial cycle, our sedra covers a bit of each of these subjects.  It therefore also includes a remarkable set of three verses (Leviticus 22:31-33) that serve to separate the two subjects.  The verses read:


31) You shall keep My commandments, and do them: I am the Lord.  32) You shall not profane My holy name; but I will be hallowed among the children of Israel: I am the Lord whom you hallow, 33) that brought you out of the Land of Egypt to be your God; I am the Lord.


As an example of how commentaries can differ, Etz Hayim makes just a one-paragraph comment on these verses whereas Hertz devotes more than a page to them.  I think that Hertz, who sees in the middle verse (“You shall not profane my holy name”)  Israel’s Bible in little,” got it right.


I commend Hertz’s full commentary to you (pp. 518-19).  However, the focus of my dvar comes a bit later, in a strange insert into the discussion of the holiday of Shavuot.  In verse 22, we find an interpolation that reads:


When ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corner of thy field, neither shalt  thou gather the gleaning of thy harvest; thou shalt leave them for the poor and for the stranger: I am the Lord your God.


This is one of three references in the Torah to pe’ah  and to gleaning (leket) and to forgotten produce (shikhhah).[1]  Pe’ah refers to the corners of a field; leket to material left after a harvest;[2] and to produce forgotten during the harvesting process.  They represent the three portions of a harvest that the Talmud requires be left for the poor, the widow and strangers in the community.  However, the laws originate from text in the Torah.  Indeed, they first appear in almost identical words just a few chapters earlier in Leviticus 19:9-10.  Moreover, similar verses on gleanings, with an extension to include olive trees and another to cover forgotten produce, will appear later in Deuteronomy 24:19-21.  These two occurrences are easy to explain.  The former is part of the Holiness Code where many rules are presented for a life that is both divinely inspired and humanely ethical; the latter appears in a place where many rules are recapitulated (and, in this case, extended).

But why is there a third mention here where it interrupts the instructions about how to celebrate Shavuot?  There are lots of explanations, but the simplest is likely the best: Shavuot is the first real harvest.  (Barley, which is harvested at Pesach, is regarded as an inferior grain – pace the Vegans among us – compared with the slower ripening wheat, which is harvested at Shavuot.).  It was particularly important that, at this time of joy, during the shortest of the three pilgrimage festivals (and therefore the one where men were least likely to come to Jerusalem), that farmers be reminded of their obligations to their poor neighbours as well as to their God.  The two are closely linked.  According to Hertz (522n), if they “failed to share God’s bounty with the poor, [their] observance of the festival would be unacceptable.”  There is one more link, though it was established later.  The most famous instance of gleaning in the Tanach comes in the Book of Ruth, where Ruth gleans in the fields owned by Boaz, and the Book of Ruth is traditionally read on Shavuot.  However, it also appears in Judges, Isaiah and Micah, so we can assume that it was current practice among the ancient Israelites (EJ: Poor, Provision for).


We know that anything repeated three times in The Torah is particularly important, and here we have a commandment that has no ritual connected with it, just a straightforward set of rules about what you cannot take from your field, no matter how hard you have laboured to produce it.  Moreover, though strictly speaking (min ha-Torah or mid’oraita) ) the laws about pe’ah and gleanings are only applicable in Eretz Ysrael, the rabbis (miderababanan) extended them to all lands where Jews are farming (Blackman Mishnah, Zeraim, p. 79; Hul. 137b).  The rabbis also interpreted the explicit reference to olive trees (Deuteronomy 24:20) to cover all fruit trees (Hul. 131a), and even a whole tree that was somehow bypassed in harvesting had to be left for the poor (Pe’ah 7:1).  With trees or vines, you were permitted to harvest them once, and in some cases twice, but never more; anything left on the trees was for the poor or the orphan or widow.


Not surprisingly, there is a tractate called Pe’ah in the Mishnah.  It comes right after tractate Berakhot in Zeraim (seeds), and its first Mishnah is familiar to all of us; it begins with the words, “These are the things for which no limit has been prescribed:”  There is no gemara in Talmud Bavli (though pe’ah and leket do receive commentary in other tractates).  As if in recompense, the authors of Talmud Jerusahalmi provided lots of more detailed commentary.  However, I will stick with the commentary in the Mishnah, where one finds eight chapters full of material.  Among others:

·       It may be possible by careful harvesting to reduce the size of the corner of the field, but the  minimum that one can leave is 1/60th of the total of the produce; however, there is no limit to the amount that one can leave.  Someone gleaning should be able to pick up enough not just for one meal but for two.

·       Periodically, what might be called a “rule of reason” is introduced.  For example, two ears of corn left in the field are “forgotten” and therefore available to the poor, but three ears are not; one can glean individual grapes that fall to the ground, but not bunches of grapes (unless they were not ripe, in which case they had to be left).


·       The Mishnah also defines what are subject to the laws of pe’ah.  It includes only that which is normally considered food, and that can be stored, and that grows from the ground, and that is gathered at one time.  Thus, crops eaten only in times of famine are exempt, as are greens (not stored), mushrooms (do not grow from the ground), and figs (gathered throughout the year).  However all grains and pulses are included, as are root crops, onions etc.

·       There are also penalty clauses and even a definition of who is poor and therefore is entitled to glean.  And a strong admonition not to show favoritism among gleaners.  There is even a recognition that gleaners might fight over the produce left in the field, and therefore the rabbis forbid them to use scythes or spades in their harvest (Pe’ah 4:4).  Moreover, the times for gleaning were specifically defined as morning, mid-day, and evening to ensure that everyone had a fair opportunity to gather a share (Pe’ah 4:5).


All these rules show how intimately religious and ethical laws were intertwined in the rabbinic mind.  They clearly saw a link between godliness and social responsibility, but, perhaps conscious of human weakness, they legislated to ensure that the poor and the stranger were given enough to live in at least minimal dignity.  According to Plaut, the laws of pe’ah are not an appeal to generosity on the part of landowners, but a right of those who are landless.  Nor is there any appeal to superstition, as there is in some other ancient religions that call for leaving some food in the field (EJ: Poor, Provision for); in Judaism the rationale is explicitly ethical.  Indeed, Plaut states that the laws of pe’ah and leket are “perhaps the oldest declaration that the disadvantaged members of the society have a right to support from that society and should not be dependent on voluntary benevolence alone . . .” (P. 895; emphasis added).  Hertz comments that ancient Israelite law is distinguished from other codes of the time because the latter were exclusively concerned for the rights of the land owner.  Encyclopedia Judaica notes that concern for the poor also appears in Egyptian wisdom literature, but certainly these sorts of law were at best rare in other cultures.


One intriguing aspect of the laws related to forgotten produce is that they contain one of those infamous Jewish legal Catch-22s.  We are all supposed to yearn to do the mitzvot of our own free will.  However, the mitzvah of forgotten produce can only be performed inadvertently – in the absence of thought.  Not surprisingly, this problem elicited lots of commentary.  However, again quoting Plaut, “the true intent of these laws was seen to be in the molding of character; people should learn not to want every last piece of produce and profit” (p. 1500).


Finally, but perhaps most importantly, what does all the classical attention to pe’ah, leket etc. have to do with us?  So far as I can learn, there is no longer much if any attention to these laws, even in Israel and even on religious kibbutzim.  As long ago as the 1930s time when Hertz was writing his Chumash, he noted sadly that the custom of leaving part of the crop for the poor was dying out.  Of course, it is sad when any ancient custom comes to be neglected, but after some thought I have concluded that these laws are appropriately ignored today.


There are some obvious reasons why the laws of pe’ah are no longer easily applicable.  For one thing, few of us live in agricultural communities any more.  Though the rabbis did try to extend the concept to urban areas, it was awkward at best.  In the small close-knit communities of ancient Israel, it was well known who was poor, who was new to the community, who was a widow.  Not so any more.  Personal status, including income, is not public information; it is only available to family, close friends, and those officials with a need to know.  Most importantly, much as the rabbis tried to make pe’ah and leket a right of the poor, the fact of having to go into the field and collect the leftovers must have carried an element of humiliation.  It made it obvious who could not support a family, and it hardly compatible with later principles of anonymous giving.  Finally, recall that Boaz had to instruct his farm workers not to molest Ruth, a statement that suggests that women who engaged in gleaning were not free from harassment or worse.


My conclusion, therefore, is that, however well intentioned were the laws of pe’ah, and however humane they may have been in the small agricultural communities in the hills of ancient Israel, they are inappropriate today.  Our systems of providing help for individuals and families that cannot support themselves is far from perfect, but it is a better method than what existed (and probably worked) in the past.  What we can carry over from the laws of pe’ah is not the method but the principle – support for the poor is not a matter of charity but of human right, and that right creates a corresponding obligation on the community.




[1]  Strictly speaking, leket refers to fallen ears of corn.  The comparable term for grapes is  ___.  In addition the term ______ refers to poor quality or unripe grapes, which must also be left for the poor.

[2]  Many books including Hertz and the Blackman Mishnah refer to forgotten corn.  However, this is a poor translation (much as with the so-called English corn laws); the Hebrew word is omer (_ ___), which specifically means barley and generally any grain.