The upcoming holy day of Shavuos is closely associated with the command to leave part of our agricultural harvest for the poor. Over the years, our Sages have questioned how this mitzvah can be carried out in our times. In recent years, a number of organizations have made it possible to once again fulfill this mitzvah in all its glory.
We will soon complete S’firas HaOmer, the seven-week count from Pesach, which commemorates the Exodus from Egypt, to Shavuos, which commemorates the Giving of the Torah. Many of us will celebrate Shavuos by devoting the entire [first] night to the study of Torah. Yet the portion of the Torah that commands us to celebrate Shavuos says nothing about the holy day being associated with the Giving of the Torah. It commands us to bring sacrifices specific to the day and to bring the bikurim to the Beis HaMikdash. The portion on Shavuos concludes: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not cut completely the corner of your field when you reap. You shall not gather the gleaning of your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and the convert. I am Hashem, your G-d (VaYikra 23:8).”
The Rambam, in his Sefer HaMitzvos (Book of the Commandments) lists 13 mitzvos, seven positive and six negative, associated with the requirement to leave a portion of our harvest for the poor. They include 1) Pei’ah – leaving produce at the edge of one’s field to be harvested by the poor. While there is no minimum amount stated in the Torah, the Rabbis established a minimum of 1/60 of the produce. 2) Leket – What falls from the sickle or one’s hand during the harvest must be left for the poor. 3) Shikchah – A pile of produce that was forgotten during the harvest must be left behind for the poor.
How these mitzvos were fulfilled is most beautifully described in the Book of Ruth, which we read on Shavuos. Ruth was a Moabite widow who insisted on accompanying her once wealthy but now impoverished mother-in-law, Naomi, to Israel to live as a Jew. Ruth meets her soon-to-be-husband, Naomi’s cousin Boaz, while gleaning in his field. They became the ancestors of the greatest family in all of history, as the great-grandparents of King David.
In a largely agricultural society, requiring farmers to set aside a portion of their crop was an effective means for providing for the poor. But is it still effective in a largely urbanized society? Our scholars have dealt with this question over the years.
The Rambam (Mishnah Torah, Hilchos Matnos Aniyim 1:10) wrote that the mitzvah is to leave produce for the poor, not for animals and birds. So long as the poor are not present to ask for these gifts, we are not required to leave them.
The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Dei’ah 332:1) ruled that if there are no Jewish poor present to collect the pei’ah, leket, and shikchah, there is no requirement to leave it. The Rama agreed, adding that nowadays these laws do not apply, since most of the poor are non-Jews.
In more recent times, the Chazon Ish wrote that “even if everyone were to keep these laws today, it would not be worthwhile for the poor to collect it.”
The common thread between these scholars seems to be that in today’s society the distance of the poor from farmland, the amount that the poor would be able to collect, and the expense and effort involved in transporting the produce and preparing it to eat mean that only a small portion of the produce would go to the Jewish poor, and that much of it would go to waste.
While these laws are no longer practical in today’s urbanized society, it is still incumbent upon us to provide sustenance for the poor.
Today, many farmers in Israel fulfill the mitzvah by donating their surplus crops to Leket Israel, an organization that collects them and distributes them to the poor. Leket has collected more than 25,000 tons of fruits and vegetables that would otherwise have gone to waste, and provides more than 1.7 million nutritious meals to close to a quarter of a million people in need.
In Queens, organizations like Tomchei Shabbos of Queens and Masbia provide meals for tens of thousands of families in need.
Organizations like Leket Israel, Tomchei Shabbos of Queens, and Masbia are not just helping the poor; they are giving all of us the opportunity to once again perform the mitzvos of Pei’ah, Leket, and Shikchah, albeit in a somewhat different way, in all their glory.
Fulfillment of the mitzvos of Pei’ah, Leket, and Shikchah led to the marriage of Ruth and Boaz and saved the Jewish people. Their descendants include King David, Rabbi Judah HaNasi (the compiler of the Mishnah, who saved the Torah for posterity), and many other luminaries. May our fulfillment of these precious mitzvos by giving our money and our time to organizations like Leket Israel, Tomchei Shabbos of Queens, and Masbia lead to our g’ulah with the coming of the ultimate descendant of Ruth and Boaz, the Mashiach, in our days.
By Manny Behar