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Vayikra/Leviticus 23:22 When you harvest the harvest of your land, you shall not finish the corner of your field in your harvest and the gleaning of your harvest you shall not glean; for the poor and the stranger you shall leave them behind;
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Here we are, in the middle of the chapter that gives the mandate and outline for all the major festivals each year in the Jewish calendar,1 and we are suddenly given a summary of a law originally stated some four chapters ago: "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 not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the L-RD am your G-d" (Vayikra 19:9-10, NJPS). What is this all about and why is it so important to interrupt the flow of the festival regulations? This verse comes immediately after the spring festivals: Pesach, the week of Matzah, counting of the days of the Omer and the festival of Shavuot (Weeks). It is followed by another speech and authority formula - "The L-RD spoke to Moshe, to say ..." (v. 23) - that in turn leads into the three "seventh month" autumn festivals: Yom Teruah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot (Tabernacles). We might almost imagine that coming exactly in the middle of the text block covering the feasts,HaShem paused and caught His breath at this point before going on with the second half of the set.
We should notice that the root appears four times in our text, providing both the verb and noun 'harvest'. Harvest - the action of harvesting and gathering in the produce of field, vineyard and orchard - is the third of the three main agricultural tasks: ploughing, sowing and harvesting, necessary for raising a crop from the land and providing food for man and animal throughout the year. The act of harvesting grain consists of cutting the stems of the plants to release the heads from the roots, gathering and tying the heads into bundles or sheaves so that the grain can dry, collecting all the sheaves together and then threshing the heads to separate the grain itself from the chaff and the inedible parts of the head and stalk. While there is a certain rate or loss and wastage in each step of this process, the manual gathering and tying of the cut heads and stalks into sheaves has the heaviest rate of attrition with many pieces falling to the ground and becoming lost in the stubble as the reapers work across a field.
Also repeating in the text is the root , appearing twice in the verse, first as a noun and then as a verb, to identify the lost or missed parts of the harvest, that have either fallen to the ground, or remain sticking up in little clumps or individual stalks as the reapers pass through the standing grain. The verb is used for gathering manna in the wilderness (Shemot 16:4), and gleaning: gathering fallen or leftover grain in the field, grapes in a vineyard or olives from an orchard. The Torah gives the poor an absolute right to glean once the landowner or farmer has harvested his crops. More, the farmer is forbidden to make a second pass through the field or vineyard to search for and pick up the lost parts, or to go over his olive or fruit trees a second time; these must be left for the poor. As well as these general rules, two specific areas of provision are made for the poor: the unharvested corner and the forgotten sheaf. The farmer must leave the corners of his field completely unharvested - as un-cut, standing grain - for the poor to harvest themselves; this is the corner referred to in our text. The forgotten sheaf, not mentioned here, refers to a sheaf that gets accidentally forgotten or left behind in the field when all the others are gathered in; this must be left in the field so that it can be used by the poor.
So that this provision does not become studied or too obvious, or look like charity, the sages of the Mishnah discuss whether the landowner should cut the grain of the unharvested corner and leave it for the poor to gather, or simply leave it standing for them to harvest. Grain could spoil if left on the ground or left too long un-cut, but the sages agree that the landowner should be completely left out of the process (m. Peah 4:1). They then add that "one who does not allow the poor to freely collect gleanings or if he assists one of them, that man robs the poor" (m. Peah 5:6). RabbiHirsch explains that, "In [Israel] the fields do not ripen, nor do the arms labour, solely for the owners of the land and the rich. The poor, the landless ones and the strangers in the land have the right to be partners in the harvest to such an extent that this care for them is an imposed duty on the landowners, to which the poor have an absolute right." Ovadiah Sforno adds, "After giving thanks for the success of the harvest, the Torah cautions us regarding these commandments which will preserve the wealth attained thereby, i.e., by commanding us regarding the gleanings and the corner of the field, as our Sages say, 'To salt (preserve) wealth, deduct from it; and others say, (do acts of) kindness' (b. Ketubot 66b)." As the Ralbag points out, "everything comes to us from G-d, who commanded that we use it to do good for the poor before any of it comes into our own hands."
Our initial question, however, still remains: why is this command repeated here in the middle of the block detailing the festivals? The K'li Yakar2 offers the idea that: "We might have supposed that the fulfillment of the Omer precept exempts us from other precepts, hence the Torah states: You shall not finish the corner ..." In other words, people might think that the ceremonial counting and harvesting of the sheaf over-rode the command to leave the corner for the poor. This might appear to be supported by theRashbam, who says that it applies, "on the day after the passover offering, after bringing the 'sheaf of the elevation offering'." The Ramban gives the orthodox position: "I think it refers to the harvesting to emphasise that, even though the purpose of that harvest is to bring the first sheaf to the priest, it does not override the two prohibitions." Rashi proposes a different idea; he suggests that this ruling is "to teach you that whoever gives gleanings, the 'forgetting' and the corner to a poor person properly, is considered as if he built the Beit HaMikdash and brought his offerings inside it."
Christian commentators seem to have caught a slightly different emphasis. Samuel Balentine comments that, "this verse reiterates that Israelites must mirror G-d's compassion for them by extending a like compassion for the most vulnerable persons in their world. When they harvest the bounty of their fields, they must leave some grain for the poor."3 John Hartley agrees: "It recurs here to teach the people that in addition to making gifts of the harvest to Yahweh they need to express compassion towards the poor. Giving generously is not only to be directed heavenwards but also earthwards, in order to fulfill the whole desire of G-d."4 Mark Rooker looks at the calendar and time of year before explaining that "this last admonition could prove to be critical since the Feast of Weeks concludes the spring festivals and the next festival would not be for about four months."5 There would be no more formal public charitable events for a long time and the poor still needed to eat; they could not afford to miss or be deprived of this one. He also points out that references in the book of Acts (e.g.. 6:1, 11:29 and 24:17) show that caring for the poor remained high on the agenda of the early believers. In his usual pithy style, James reminds us that, "religion that is pure and undefiled before G-d, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world" (James 1:27, ESV).
Most of us are not farmers and do not have corners of our fields to leave unharvested so that the poor may glean. Most of the poor would not know what to do with an unharvested field-corner of grain. Attempts to provide jobs for the poor or to involve them in working to earn their own money are often rebuffed or greeted with disdain. Those who beg on the streets of our cities frequently refuse food or drink when offered; all they want is cash - and to hand out money, unless specifically prompted by the Holy Spirit, is more likely to feed a habit (and a chain of dealers) than a hungry family. How are we to meet our obligation to genuinely care for the poor in a meaningful way without allowing others to take advantage of us? After all, Yeshua tells us that "you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have Me" (Matthew 26:11, ESV). How can we serve Him by serving "the least of these my brothers" (25:40, ESV) in His name?
One answer at least is to provide a regular monthly donation to one of the excellent charities who specialise in helping the poor - whether bereavement counselling for widows or practical help and rehabilitation for the homeless and street poor. These folk are trained and equipped for doing this work, showing care and compassion where appropriate and tough love where necessary to help people to stand on their own feet, to find faith in Yeshua if they can and to rejoin society in a meaningful way. A regular gift is often more useful than an occasional lump sum - even if that amounts to the same in financial terms - since it enables the charity to budget and plan, to set sustainable service levels and manage their resources. As we meet week by week to worship on Shabbat and celebrate the festivals throughout the year, this is remembering to leave the corner of our fields unharvested for the poor.
1. - Shabbat, the spring festivals - Pesach, Matzah and Shavuot - and the autumn festivals - Yom Teruah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret - are usually considered to be the Mo'edim, the feasts of HaShem, the biblical festivals. The feast of Purim is commanded by Mordechai at the end of the story of Esther and the festival of Hanukkah dates from the Inter-Testamental period. All these festivals were celebrated and observed within Second Temple Judaism. The New Covenant Scriptures record Yeshua and His disciples participating in many of these. Later fasts and festivals, such as Tisha B'Av and Tu B'Shevat are rabbinically instituted and date from the centuries following the destruction of the Second Temple; they are not part of the biblical festivals.
2. - The K'li Yakar is a commentary to the Torah which highlights the homiletic or d'rash written by Shlomo Ephraim of Luntshitz (1550-1619), a student of the Maharshal.
3. - Samuel E. Balentine, Leviticus, Interpretation, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), page 178.
4. - John E. Hartley, Leviticus, Word Biblical Commentary, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1992), pages 386-387.
5. - Mark F. Rooker, Leviticus, The New American Commentary, (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2000), page 288.
Further Study: D'varim 5:11; Job 31:16-22; Matthew 25:34-40
Application: Why not research how you could help the poor on the regular basis, in the middle of the feasts, and so fulfill this commandment. Ask the Spirit to guide you to the place where your gift could be most used to extend the work of the kingdom in sometimes dark and inaccessible places.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2021
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