Gleanings for the Poor – Justice, Not Charity
The concept of “charity” (tzedakah) in a form recognizable to us today – as giving one’s money or other asset to the poor without an expectation of compensation from the recipient – is a post-biblical development, beginning in the Hellenistic era and brought to fuller fruition in the earliest rabbinic texts (second-third centuries C.E.). In the Hebrew Bible, support for the poor is provided in a variety of different ways.
Exodus 23:11 instructs landowners to leave their land fallow every seventh year for the poor to collect what grows. Deuteronomy (14:28–9 and 26:12–15) requires the tithe in the third and sixth years of the Sabbatical cycle, to be given to the needy, and advocates lending to the poor in the years leading up to the cancellation of debts every seventh year (15:7–11).
A number of prophetic texts also express special empathy for the poor, instructing the reader not to take advantage of the needy (Isa 3:14–15, 10:1–2; Jer 5:28; Amos 8:4–6) while the book of Esther (9:22) instructs one to give “gifts to the poor” on the festival of Purim.
Above all, the preeminent way to support the poor in the Hebrew Bible is through allocations to the poor at the time of the harvest, which is the focus of this piece.
Agricultural Allocations for the Poor
The key passages laying out these required allocations appear in the Deuteronomic law collection (D) and Leviticus’s Holiness Collection (H).In these texts, the agency of the householder/landowner is restricted; his obligations are negative and passive in character.
Deuteronomy lists three laws—leaving forgotten sheaves, and not repicking olive trees or grape vines—one law for each type of produce (translation is based on NJPS with adjustments):
דברים כד:יט כִּי תִקְצֹר קְצִירְךָ בְשָׂדֶךָ וְשָׁכַחְתָּ עֹמֶר בַּשָּׂדֶה לֹא תָשׁוּב לְקַחְתּוֹ לַגֵּר לַיָּתוֹם וְלָאַלְמָנָה יִהְיֶה לְמַעַן יְבָרֶכְךָ יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּכֹל מַעֲשֵׂה יָדֶיךָ.
Deut 24:19 When you reap the harvest in your field and overlook a sheaf in the field, do not turn back to get it; it shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow – in order that YHWH your God may bless you in all your undertakings.
כד:כ כִּי תַחְבֹּט זֵיתְךָ לֹא תְפָאֵר אַחֲרֶיךָ לַגֵּר לַיָּתוֹם וְלָאַלְמָנָה יִהְיֶה.
24:20 When you beat down the fruit of your olive trees, do not go over them again; that shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow.
כד:כא כִּי תִבְצֹר כַּרְמְךָ לֹא תְעוֹלֵל אַחֲרֶיךָ לַגֵּר לַיָּתוֹם וְלָאַלְמָנָה יִהְיֶה.
24:21 When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not pick it over again; that shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow.
In contrast, Leviticus 19 lists two laws for the grain field—leaving the edges and the gleanings, and two for the vineyards—not repicking the vine or gathering fallen fruit:
ויקרא יט:ט וּבְקֻצְרְכֶם אֶת קְצִיר אַרְצְכֶם לֹא תְכַלֶּה פְּאַת שָׂדְךָ לִקְצֹר וְלֶקֶט קְצִירְךָ לֹא תְלַקֵּט.
Lev 19:9 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 (= leftovers) of your harvest.
יט:י וְכַרְמְךָ לֹא תְעוֹלֵל וּפֶרֶט כַּרְמְךָ לֹא תְלַקֵּט לֶעָנִי וְלַגֵּר תַּעֲזֹב אֹתָם אֲנִי יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.
You shall not pick your vineyard bare or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I YHWH am your God.
Negative Duties: Restricted Agency
Whatever the original relationship may have been between the laws in Deuteronomy and those in Leviticus, the Torah as a whole lists six rules about what should be left for the poor:
- לקט (leqet) – gleanings (Lev);
- שכחה (shikhechah) – forgotten sheaves (Deut);
- פאה (pe’ah) – edges (or corners) of the field (Lev);
- לא תפאר (lo tefa’er) – olives left on the tree (Deut);
- עולל (ʿolel) – going over the grapevine (Deut and Lev);
- פרט (peret) – fallen or separated fruit (Lev).
The obligations here are all passive, lacking agency: He is to leave the produce in the field and vineyard for the underprivileged to collect. He is to refrain from certain behavior – he is not to reap the edges of the field, notto pick up the fallen gleanings, not to strip the vineyard or the olive grove bare.
These are negative duties – “thou shalt not” commandments, in contrast to the positive, “thou shalt” variety. That is, the landowner is instructed to refrain from interfering with the distribution of produce from God to the poor. The landowner is not asked to actively hand over or distribute anything of his own – especially not in the way that an individual will be instructed to give charity from his or her own pocket in later Jewish texts.
According to the laws in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, as I demonstrate at length elsewhere, the owner of the field does not give these items, per se, to the needy because he cannot – these items never belonged to the householder in the first place. Rather, they are direct allocations from God, as the householder is commanded merely to refrain from interfering with God’s allocation of the produce to the needy.
Gathering Gleanings and Sheaves in Ruth
Ruth chapter 2, which describes how Ruth supported herself and her mother-in-law by gathering grain in the field, offers a glimpse of how these laws were later understood:
רות ב:ג וַתֵּלֶךְ וַתָּבוֹא וַתְּלַקֵּט בַּשָּׂדֶה אַחֲרֵי הַקֹּצְרִים…
Ruth 2:3 Off she went and she came and gleaned in a field, behind the reapers…
According to this, the poor would literally walk behind the reapers and pick up the gleanings. The story emphasizes the distinction between what can be gleaned and what cannot by highlighting how Ruth herself, ignorant of Israelite rules, incorrectly requests to “gather among the sheaves” (2:7), which Boaz allows her to do even though such is not prescribed in the Torah:
רות ב:טו וַתָּקָם לְלַקֵּט וַיְצַו בֹּעַז אֶת נְעָרָיו לֵאמֹר גַּם בֵּין הָעֳמָרִים תְּלַקֵּט וְלֹא תַכְלִימוּהָ. ב:טז וְגַם שֹׁל תָּשֹׁלּוּ לָהּ מִן הַצְּבָתִים וַעֲזַבְתֶּם וְלִקְּטָה וְלֹא תִגְעֲרוּ בָהּ.
Ruth 2:15 When she got up again to glean, Boaz gave orders to his workers, “You are not only to let her glean among the sheaves without interference, 2:16but you must also pull some stalks out of the heaps and leave them for her to glean, and not scold her.”
Justice, Not Charity
Although the agricultural allocations to the poor share some characteristics with charity, they function differently. Charity is a positive duty whose underlying premise is that it comes from one’s own personal property and the benefactor exercises some discretion over what is given and how. Thus, in their discussion of charity, the rabbis do not specify the time or place for when it should be given. The biblical laws of harvest allocations, in contrast, have traits that are typically characterized as acts of justice.
While charity is defined by personal discretion, justice is devoid of it.Whereas the laws of charity do not allow for the recipients to claim that they are owed anything in particular, systems of justice provide the recipients with correlative rights. Since the agricultural allocation laws do have specific requirements about what the householder must do (the six items listed above) and to whom (the poor that show up to take these items), they are better characterized as acts of justice and not charity.
Procedural Justice: A Focus on Rights
I suggest that the kind of justice reflected in these texts is procedural justice – which focuses on fairness of the process rather than the final outcome of that process. Here, the biblical laws are more concerned with the process of allocation than whether the poor actually receive enough food to sustain themselves. In the rabbinic tradition, this finds expression by focusing on the property rights over the produce (either for the landowner/householder or the poor individual), and how one determines who is the owner of a given piece of produce.
For example, the Mishnah discusses how one determines who has the rights to gleanings in a variety of cases (m. Pe’ah 4:10-11):
איזהו לקט הנושר בשעת הקצירה היה קוצר קצר מלא ידו תלש מלא קמצו הכהו קוץ ונפל מידו לארץ הרי הוא של בעל הבית תוך היד ותוך המגל לעניים אחר היד ואחר המגל לבעל הבית ראש היד וראש המגל רבי ישמעאל אומר לעניים רבי עקיבא אומר לבעל הבית:
Which are gleanings? That which falls during the reaping. If one was reaping and he reaped a handful, plucked a fistful, [and] a thorn pricked him and it fell from his hand to the ground –this belongs to the householder. From within the hand or within the sickle – for the poor; Back the hand or behind the sickle – for the householder; Top of the hand or the top of the sickle – R. Ishmael says: “For the poor.” R. Akiba says: “For the householder.”
חורי הנמלים שבתוך הקמה הרי הן של בעל הבית שלאחר הקוצרים העליונים לעניים והתחתונים של בעל הבית רבי מאיר אומר הכל לעניים שספק לקט לקט:
Ant holes in the midst of standing grain, they belong to the householder; those after the reapers – the upper ones – belong to the poor, and the lower ones – belong to the householder. R. Meir says: “All belong to the poor, because doubtful gleanings aregleanings.”
The rabbis refine the allocation procedure by creating clear legal claims over who owns which elements of the harvest. Notably, by giving the poor a legal claim to certain produce, the rabbis identify a specific group of people to whom it is owed.
Giving Ownership to the Poor
The stakes, therefore, are quite high: according to the biblical text, if the harvester does not leave pe’ah, he has failed to perform his religious duty to God. With the rabbinic interpretation and expansion of the laws, the harvester has also injured another human. He has not only committed a wrong, but he has wronged someone else. The rabbis equate this with stealing from the poor, a point they make repeatedly; for example (m.Pe’ah 7:3):
איזהו פרט הנושר בשעת הבצירה היה בוצר עקץ את האשכול הוסבך בעלים נפל מידו לארץ ונפרט הרי הוא של בעל הבית המניח את הכלכלה תחת הגפן בשעה שהוא בוצר הרי זה גוזל את העניים על זה נאמר (משלי כב) אל תסג גבול עולים:
Which are separated grapes? That which drops during the vintage. While he was reaping, if he cut a cluster, [and] it became entangled in the leaves, [and] it fell from his hand to the ground, and it broke apart – this belongs to the householder. One who lays the basket underneath the vine while he reaps grapes – this one steals from the poor; on this it is said (Prov 22:28): “Do not remove the landmark of the poor.”
Since the rabbis give the poor rights over gleanings, a householder who fails to comply with the allocation laws has robbed the poor.
My reading of these laws as procedural justice contrasts with that of other scholars who see it as social or distributive justice – which is a set of principles designed to guide the allocation of benefits and the burdens of economic activities. But even if strict egalitarianism – which advocates for the allocation of equal material goods to all members of society – is not pursued, at the very least, distributive justice ought to reduce economic inequalities in a meaningful way, which is not the case here.
Too Marginal to be Redistribution
Already in the Bible, the agricultural allocation laws propose only a marginal reduction of material inequalities since they insist on leaving only a negligible amount of produce for the poor to collect – produce in the corner of a field, the small amounts that fall to the ground, and produce negligible enough to be forgotten. This was already noted in the first century C.E. by Flavius Josephus:
For great wealth will not adhere to the owners through such painstaking gathering on their part as much as gratitude will come from the needy.
The rabbinic quantification also leaves the allocations as marginal. We see this especially in the Mishnah’s instruction that one can fulfill the laws ofpe’ah by leaving for the needy only one-sixtieth of the harvest, which Tannaitic texts elsewhere define as a “miserly” (הרעה) amount. That is, the figure of one-sixtieth is used in rabbinic discourse to indicate an amount that is by definition insignificant. A passage from the Dead Sea Scrolls, by contrast, indicates a minimum of one-thirtieth to the poor (משלושים) – still an insignificant amount, though twice that of the Mishnah, emphasizing how small the rabbinic amount is.
Both in terms of material and the rights attached to them, these allocations to the poor are paltry at best. The system of harvest-time allocations to the poor do little, if anything, to erode socio-economic inequalities.
Care for the Poor: From Procedure to Outcome
Both in the biblical text and their later interpretations by the rabbis, the laws of harvest-time allocations center on the principle that humans neither own the land nor its produce outright. Rather, a portion of the harvest belongs to God, which in turn God allocates to the poor, who are under God’s special care. Only upon ensuring that God and the poor receive their share can the landowner claim the rest of the harvest for himself.
As such, these laws focus primarily on the procedures that the landowner must follow so that these allocations are carried out properly. The rabbis would up the ante by ascribing a set of correlative rights to the poor, ensuring that there are human agents to whom these elements of the harvest are owed. That is, the focus of these laws is primarily on proper procedure – more so than the outcome of that procedure.
That said, the biblical text establishes the primacy and importance of care for the poor, and it is perhaps from this general ethos (though not derived from any particular text) that we see the development of a parallel form of support for the poor in post-biblical Jewish texts – namely, charity. It is in the post-biblical concept of charity, especially as it is fleshed out by the rabbis, that becomes increasingly focused on outcomes – i.e., on satisfying the specific needs of the poor.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
August 22, 2018
September 22, 2023
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Dr. Gregg E. Gardner is Associate Professor and the Diamond Chair in Jewish Law and Ethics in the Department of Classical, Near Eastern, and Religious Studies at the University of British Columbia. He holds a Ph.D. in Religion from Princeton University and was a Newcombe Foundation Fellow, a Starr Fellow in Judaica at Harvard University, and a Mellon/American Council of Learned Societies Fellow at Brown University. His research focuses on Judaism in late antiquity and classical rabbinic literature, with a special interest in poverty, charity, and material culture. Gardner is the author of The Origins of Organized Charity in Rabbinic Judaism (Cambridge University Press, 2015) and co-editor of Antiquity in Antiquity: Jewish and Christian Pasts in the Greco-Roman World (Mohr Siebeck, 2008). For more, visit https://ubc.academia.edu/GreggGardner
Essays on Related Topics: