Rabbi Bernie Fox
Moral Lessons Derived from the Laws of Leket
And when you harvest the harvest of your land you should not completely harvest the corner of your field. You should not make a collection of the fallen ears of grain. Do not collect lone grapes from your vineyard and do not make a collection of the fallen grapes. Leave them for the poor person and the convert. I am Hashem your G-d. (Sefer VaYikra 19:9-10)
1. Support for the poor through their participation in the harvest
Among the many mitzvot described in Parshat Kedoshim are a number of commandments designed to assure that the poor and less fortunate are cared for at the time of harvest. All of these commandments operate in a similar manner. They restrict the manner in which a field of grain or vineyard is harvested and assure that some portion of the crop is left behind for collection by the poor. The first of the two passages above delineates specific mitzvot that apply to a field of grain and the second passage describes the commandments that apply to a vineyard.
Two mitzvot are described in regard to a field of grain. The first is the commandment of Pe’ah. The mitzvah of Pe’ah requires that the corner of the field not be harvested. The grain is to be left standing for collection by the poor and needy. The second mitzvah is Leket. This mitzvah requires that ears of grain that fall to the ground at the time of harvest not be subsequently collected. Instead, these ears of grain should be left in the field for the poor to collect.
Two mitzvot are described in regard to a vineyard. The first is Olelot. Loosely defined, this commandment requires that isolated grapes be left on the vine to be collected by the poor. The second commandment is Peret. This mitzvah requires that fallen grapes be left for the poor.
2. How much fallen grain must be abandoned to the poor?
The mishne in Mesechet Pe’ah describes a basic dispute between Bait Hillel and Bait Shamai – the School of Hillel and the School of Shamai. As explained above, the mitzvah of Leket requires that when a few ears of grain fall to the ground at the time of harvest, they are to be left to the poor. Bait Hillel and Bait Shamai argue over the number of ears that are regarded as “a few”. According to Bait Hillel a single ear of grain or two ears that fall to the ground in a single spot are regarded as a mere “few” and the field’s owner must leave these for the poor. Bait Shamai argues that even three ears that fall to the ground together must be left to the poor. Only groups of four ears that have fallen together may be collected by the field’s owner.
It is hard to imagine the basis for such an argument. However, the Talmud Yerushalmi explains the issue in dispute.
When you reap your harvest in your field, and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to take it. It shall be for the convert, for the orphan, and for the widow; so that Hashem your G-d may bless you in all the work of your hands. (Sefer Devarim 24:19)
3. Talmud Yerushalmi’s explanation of the dispute between the schools of Hillel and Shamai
In Sefer Devarim the Torah discusses another mitzvah that is similar to Leket. The mitzvah of Shich’chah requires that bundles of grain that are forgotten in the field and not collected when the grain is gathered must be left for the poor. In other words, the mitzvah of Leket requires that individual or small quantities of dropped ears must be abandoned to the poor. Shich’chah requires that even after the grain is bundled in order to be collected, individual or small quantities of overlooked bundles must be abandoned to the poor. How many bundles are regarded as a small quantity? Again, Bait Hillel and Bait Shamai argue. Bait Hillel posits that if one or two bundles are forgotten at a single spot, then they are left for the poor. If three bundles are overlooked, the owner of the field may recover them. Bait Shamai contends that even groups of three bundles that are forgotten in a single spot must be overlooked. Groups of four or more bundles may be recovered by the field owner.
The Talmud Yerushalmi notes that both the passages in Sefer VaYikra and those in Sefer Devarim direct Bnai Yisrael to leave Leket and the other agricultural gifts to the poor. However, the two sets of passages describe the beneficiaries differently. The passages in Sefer VaYika direct Bnai Yisrael to “leave them for the poor person and the convert”. Two beneficiary groups are identified – the poor and the convert. In Sefer Devarim the Torah tells us that “it shall be for the convert, for the orphan, and for the widow”. In this passage three beneficiary groups are identified.
The Talmud Yerushalmi explains that Bait Hillel maintains that the maximum number of sheaves or ears that must be left for the poor corresponds with the number of beneficiary groups identified in Sefer VaYikra – the poor and convert. Therefore, only two or less ears or sheaves dropped or forgotten in a single spot are left for the needy. If more than two ears are dropped or sheaves forgotten, the owner may collect them. Bait Shamai bases its position of the number of beneficiary groups identified in Sefer Deravim. That passage identifies three groups – the convert, orphan, and widow. Based upon this passage, even three dropped ears or forgotten sheaves must be abandoned and only four or more may be collected by the owner.
4. Reconciling two descriptions of Leket and Shich’chah
In considering this dispute it is important to note an observation made by the commentator on Talmud Yerushalmi, P’nai Moshe. He explains that the dispute between Bait Hillel and Bait Shamai does not suggest any actual contradiction between the passages. The convert, orphan, and widow are all entitled to Leket and the other agricultural gifts. However, the passage in Sefer Devarim mentions each beneficiary group specifically. The Sefer VaYikra passage combines the orphan and widow into a single group – the poor.
P’nai Moshe further explains that the dispute between Bait Hillel and Bait Shamai is over which passage is more fundamental to the commandments discussed in the passages. According to Bait Hillel, the Sefer VaYikra text is the fundamental source text. It identifies two beneficiary groups. The Sefer Devarim text only intends to delineate more fully the members included in the beneficiary group that Sefer VaYikra refers to as “the poor”. Bait Shamai disagrees. It argues that the Sefer Devarim text is more significant. It delineates three beneficiary groups. The Sefer VaYikra text abbreviates its list of beneficiaries by referring to widows and orphans with a single descriptive term – the poor.
The Talmud Yerushalmi’s explanation of the dispute is difficult to understand. Bait Hillel and Bait Shamai were certainly aware of both passages. Yet, Bait Hillel accepts the Sefer VaYikra passage as the relevant text and Bait Shamai bases its ruling on the Sefer Devarim text. The question remains. On what basis does each school select its specific source text?
5. Alternatives to the Talmud Yerushalmi’s view
Before attempting to answer this question, it is useful to consider how the dispute between Bait Hillel and Bait Shamai could be explained without recourse to the Talmud Yerushalmi. In other words, is there an alternative explanation of the dispute that is not based upon the passages cited by the Talmud Yerushalmi?
There is a simple explanation that does seem to emerge. Two sheaves or ears constitute a pair. However, three ears or sheaves constitute a group. This suggests that the two schools agree that a pair of ears or sheaves must be left to the poor. However, they differ on the status of the minimal – the smallest possible – group. Bait Hillel argues that if the forgotten or dropped grain constitutes a group, then it is no longer an insignificant quantity. Once the forgotten or dropped grain is significant in quantity, it belongs to the field’s owner and not to the poor. Bait Shamai disagrees. This school argues that the field’s owner is obligated to leave the minimal group – comprised of three ears or sheaves – to the poor. Only when the number of ears or sheaves comprises a group that exceeds the minimum – it is composed of four or more ears or sheaves – is the owner permitted to collect them.
Perhaps, this dispute between Bait Hillel and Bait Shamai reflects a fundamental divergence of views on the nature of the institutions of Leket, and Shich’chah. According to Bait Hillel, these mitzvot essentially enjoin the field owner to not collect insignificant amounts of dropped or forgotten grain. Two ears or sheaves are deemed by the Torah as insignificant because they constitute only a pair and not a group. Essentially, the Torah commands the owner to not be miserly and sweep the field of every last ear and sheave. According to Bait Shamai, the obligations of Leket and Shich’chah are not satisfied by leaving behind insignificant amounts of ears and sheaves. The Torah requires that the owner leave for the poor even significant amounts of ears and sheaves. Therefore, the minimal group – the group of three must be left for the poor as their portion. Only when the group is larger than minimal – when it is comprised of more than three ears or sheaves – may the owner retrieve it. The Torah is requiring much more from the owner than suggested by Bait Hillel. Although not required to intentionally create Leket and Shich’chah, the owner is required to leave for the poor forgotten sheaves and dropped ears that are significant in number – that constitute a minimal group.
6. The Talmud Yerushalmi revisited
This analysis provides insight into the Talmud Yerushalmi’s explanation of the dispute between the schools of Hillel and Shamai. According to Bait Shamai, the source text is the Sefer Devarim passage. Bait Shamai contends that this passage enumerates the beneficiary groups – the convert, orphan, and widow. The enumeration suggests that the Torah is stressing the breadth of the challenge to be addressed in responding to poverty. The Torah is demanding that we take note of multiple causes for poverty and respond accordingly. It follows from this perspective on the immensity of the challenge that the response to poverty must be more aggressive. Therefore, Bait Shamai suggests that leaving the poor only those ears and sheaves whose numbers are insignificant is inadequate. Instead, a higher level of support for the poor is requisite. A subsidy of some significance must be left for the poor. Therefore, even the group of three ears and sheaves must be abandoned to the poor. Only when the group of forgotten or lost grains becomes more than just significant and is deemed substantial – a group of four or more ears or sheaves – may the owner collect it.
Bait Hillel argues that the Sefer VaYikra passage is the more significant text. In contrast to the Sefer Devarim text, this passage combines the orphan and widow into a single category – the poor. The passage is apparently moderating the description of the challenge suggested by the Sefer Devarim passage. Consequently, Bait Hillel suggests that the Torah only demands that the owner not be stingy. He may not sweep the field of insignificant, lone or pairs of ears and sheaves. However, the more maximal requirement to abandon even amounts of grain that are significant is not mandated.
7. The underlying moral lesson
In short, both schools agree that the number of sheaves and ears that the Torah requires be abandoned to the poor corresponds with the degree of need. Bait Shamai argues that the Torah emphasizes the extent of the need. Therefore, even ears and sheaves significant in number must be abandoned to the poor. Bait Hillel suggests that it is not the Torah’s intention to emphasize the extent of the need. In fact, the Torah’s intention is to moderate the impression of extensive need implicit in the Sefer Devarim text. Therefore, numbers of ears or sheaves that are significant may be collected by the owner. However, he may not be parsimonious and collect even the insignificant dropped or forgotten ears and sheaves.
It is appropriate to note that both schools agree on an underlying principle. Charity and support for the needy must correspond with the extent of the need. The two schools differ only on the extent of need that the Torah describes. This lesson should inform our personal charitable giving. A commitment to make an annual gift to charity of a set amount is praiseworthy. However, this behavior does not meet the standard suggested by the above discussion. Sometimes need in a community burgeons. At such times, charitable giving must grow and expand in proportion to the need. We conform to the principle of Bait Shamai and Bait Hillel through expanding our giving to meet the greater need. In other words, in difficult economic times; at times when more people are in need and when need is more intense; those blessed with resources to help others embrace the principle espoused by these schools by expanding their charitable giving in response to that need.