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D'varim/Deuteronomy 23:26(25) When you come in the standing grain of your neighbour, you may pluck ears in your hand, but you shall not lift a sickle to the standing grain of your neighbour.
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This is the second of a pair of verses allowing limited public access to a privately owned resource. The first verse deals with grapes in a vineyard (see here); the second - our text - essentially repeats the permission and conditions in the appropriate form for grain in a cereal field. The non-owner, be that a worker, a traveller or just a neighbour, may satisfy their hunger from the land-owner's crop, provided they do so only with their hands and for the hunger of the moment; they may not harvest or take away any of the crop. RabbiHirsch comments that, "when G-d founded our national society and laid the building up of a social life based on the feelings of the duties of brotherly love and rights, He retained the most unlimited rights of disposal of all our possessions." While we - as farmers, artisans, bakers and creators - tend to be somewhat proprietary about the work of our hands, HaShem regards them all as His. While He usually allows us to keep most - if not, in practice, all - of these for our use, He retains His absolute right to dispose of or re-deploy any or all of our stuff as He needs for other purposes in His kingdom.
Although the plain sense of the text seems to apply to anyone - travellers, passers-by and the like - Chazal teach that this verse speaks only of those who are employed to work in the grain field - the right to eat of the harvest, before it is tithed, is granted to agricultural workers as part of their conditions of hire. Working from the phrase "When you come in the standing grain of your neighbour", the rabbis ask, "When else would you go in your neighbour's grain, but to help him harvest it?" (Sifrei 267). Targum Onkelos changes the Hebrew verb to the Aramaic , "hire yourself" to make that point, supporting the sages of the Talmud (b. Bava Metzia 87b) who connect our verse with the rule for the hired day worker - whether a fellow Israelite or a sojourner: "You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it" (D'varim 24:15, NJPS) - who must be paid before the sun goes down. We could also perhaps see a connection to "You shall not muzzle an ox while it is threshing" (25:4, NJPS); if an animal may graze on the grain it is helping to thresh, how much more so the hired workers.
Another clue to the time of harvest is the word , ears of corn; this comes from the root , to pick or pluck quickly.1 Hirsch argues - from the use of the word in b. Beitza 12b - that "it is evident that means shelling the grains out of the ears, hence are the shelled grains. Or the freshly picked ears are called out of which one picks the grains by hand." In either case, Jeffrey Tigay explains, the grains are only soft like that, "when barley and wheat are still standing in the field, not yet ready for harvest, their grains are soft and edible after husking. The process is described in the Mishnah: If a man peels the husks of barley .. and eats ... If he rubs ears of wheat, sifting them from one hand to the other [to remove the chaff] and eating them ... (m. Ma'aserot 4:5)."
Harvesting of the farmer's grain by another is not permitted. This is why the Torah says that a sickle must not be used on the grain. "Since a sickle cuts several stalks at once," Tigay points out, "this could easily yield more than can eat on the spot, which is all one is entitled to take." In the previous verse, the same point is made by not allowing baskets or bowls to be used when picking a few grapes. Peter Craigie agrees: "This privilege was not to be denied to any man; the harvest was a part of G-d's gracious provision, but the harvesting of the crop could only be done by the farmer."2
That said, taking the question of ownership and provision a step further, Gunther Plaut suggests that "these verses may be seen as continuing the theme of [previous verses]: your possessions are never fully your own and must be shared." Christopher Wright explains that, "this law is another example of the OT's characteristic priority of needs over rights. Neighbourly hospitality should allow a hungry traveller to have something to eat from one's crops without charge and grudge. On the other hand, this ancient (and still common) privilege should not be abused by actions tantamount to theft. Laws like this, deliberately imprecise, require considerable maturity and social trust and presuppose a people prepared to put very practical flesh on to the basic principle of loving G-d through loving the neighbour."3 By being carefully vague, the Torah leaves room for the heart that is seeking HaShem to creatively find ways to bless others and receive His blessing in turn.
Now let's see what the Apostolic Writers record Yeshua doing with this text. Here's the background, first from Matthew - "At that time Yeshua went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him, 'Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath'" (Matthew 12:1-2, ESV) and then from Luke: "On a Sabbath, while He was going through the grainfields, His disciples plucked and ate some heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands. But some of the Pharisees said, 'Why are you doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath?" (Luke 6:1-2, ESV). Our text makes it clear that this is, in general, allowed. Matthew tells us that the disciples plucked the grain for themselves, there and then - they were hungry; Luke adds enough detail to show that they didn't do any harvesting: they simply rubbed the husks off in their hands before they ate the grain.
So what are the Pharisees so worked up about? They are thinking of several of the thirty-nine categories of work that are forbidden on Shabbat (m. Shabbat 7.2): reaping, harvesting, threshing and winnowing. This is explicitly covered by the Torah: "Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor; you shall cease from labor even at ploughing time and harvest time" (Shemot 34:21, NJPS). The rabbinic definitions say that reaping includes cutting or plucking any growing thing, while harvesting covers operations such as binding grain into sheaves or bales. Threshing is where food is separated from its natural container - removing grain form its husk is considered the prime example - and winnowing is where food is separated from its inedible portions by means of the wind. By this logic, even though the underlying concept is permitted - by the license given to travellers in our text - it is only permitted on one of the six working days when the specific plucking and shucking actions are allowed.
How did Yeshua respond? He says, "Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of G-d and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those with him?" (Luke 6:3-4, ESV). Yeshua emphasises need over ritual, citing the well-known example of David and his men - clearly not priests - eating the shewbread. David and his men were hungry, they needed to eat; Yeshua's disciples were hungry, they needed to eat. In both cases, the current need overrode ritual issues in the same way that life-saving surgery - no matter how many categories of work are involved, by however many people - is permitted on Shabbat to save life. HaShem could clearly have intervened to strike David down for infraction of Torah, as He did Uzzah who "reached out for the Ark of G-d and grasped it" (2 Samuel 6:6, NJPS) when the oxen pulling the cart carrying the ark from the house of Aminadab towards Jerusalem stumbled, but He didn't.
Matthew then relates Yeshua adding a comment about the priests violating Shabbat when they carry out their service in the Sanctuary, because they are serving G-d at His instruction, before rebuking the Pharisees for judging the disciples to be guilty by quoting the prophet Hosea: "For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of G-d rather than burnt offerings" (Hosea 6:6, ESV). The Hebrew word , steadfast love or loving kindness is one of the attributes of G-d listed in His proclamation to Moshe at Mt. Sinai, "... abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands ..." (Shemot 34:5-7). Translated as 'mercy' or 'compassion' in most English Bibles, this is the same character that is practically demonstrated by farmers and land-owners who allow passers-by to defray their hunger by taking a few ears of grain from the side of their fields. It is that same character that Yeshua wants to cultivate in us, His disciples, of generosity and open-handedness.
1. - Matttyahu Clark, Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew (Jerusalem, Feldheim, 1999), 140.
2. - P. C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy, NICOT, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1976), page 304.
3. - Christopher J. H. Wright, Deuteronomy (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012), page 253.
Further Study: Micah 6:6-8; Colossians 2:16-17
Application: Would you be prepared to let travellers forage gently in your wheat-field to assuage their hunger when on a journey? How attached are you to your possessions - are they yours or are you simply the current steward of the things that belong to the L-rd? Perhaps it is time to check with the Boss how tightly you hold the things in your life and seek His guidance.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2022
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