Peah and a Modern Jewish Ethic for Giving

Alex Braver
October 17, 2011
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Rabbi Nevins, who I am fortunate to have as a teacher at JTS, mentioned that peah could be understood in modern times as “sacred spending that is mandatory,” and “emergency food relief.”  I studied the section in the Mishnah—the first main collection of rabbinic legal material—that deals with this issue over the summer with a friend, and think I very much agree.
In its literal form, peah means “corners,” and the Mishnah discusses–in incredibly minute detail–the particulars of how Jewish farmers should leave the corners of their fields unharvested for the poor to come and collect, as well as other ways that food is to be left for them (food that is dropped while harvesting must be left behind, and sections of the field that the owner forgets to harvest must be left unharvested).  While the text gets into very specific details, I think that it offers us a window into the rabbinic understanding of what it means to care for the poor.

In my view, the rabbis most certainly did not view this mitzvah as “charity”, up to the whim of the giver, but very much as a requirement.  After saying that there is no prescribed limit to the mitzvah for Peah, the rabbis then write:

אין פוחתין לפיאה משישים, אף על פי שאמרו אין לפיאה שיעור:  הכול לפי גודל השדה, ולפי רוב העניים, ולפי הענווה.

One should not make the Peah less than one-sixtieth [of the field], and even though we said that there is no definite amount for Peah: it is all based upon the size of the field, the number of poor, and the abundance of the crop.

In an ideal world, there is no limit–upper or lower–that needs to be prescribed.  Few will be poor, and everyone will give freely and generously.  But then reality hits, and the rabbis realize that people need to be reminded of their obligations.  The term for “size” of the field–godel–comes from the same root as gadol, large.  And the term for “number” of the poor, “rov,” can also mean “many.”  So, creatively reading the above Mishna, one might say:

One should not make the Peah less than one-sixtieth [of the field], and even though we said that there is no definite amount for Peah, it is all because of the largeness of the fields, the many poor, and the abundance of the crop.

The text seems to hint at a reality not too distant from our own–there is great wealth in the hands of few individuals, and many poor with great need.  Given this reality, the rabbis then set out writing an in-depth manual on how to balance the competing claims of the landowners, who work and create the food, and the poor, who lack the resources to produce their own food..

Peah isn’t based on the giver’s feelings, or whether or not s/he wants to give, or whether or not the poor are going to use the grain in the most efficient way possible.  All of Mishnah Peah seems to take for granted the fact that the ba’al ha’sadeh (the field-owner) has an obligation to the a’ni (poor person).  The question is never whether or not the ba’al ha’sadeh should give or not give grain, but rather how much they ought to give.  The rabbis work very hard to find a balance between the real needs of the poor, and what lengths a landowner can reasonably be expected to take to ensure that the poor in his area are well-fed.

When I think about a modern Jewish ethic for giving, I think this rabbinic text can be instructive.  When there is a need in our community (Jewish, national, or international), our response should never be whether or not to give–the answer to that question is clear.  The only question is, how much?

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Alex Braver is a rabbinic fellow at B'nai Jeshurun and a third-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He has also served as a student chaplain, studied at Yeshivat Hadar, and tutored remedial math and English at a charter school in Boston. He graduated from Brandeis University in 2009 with majors in history and politics.

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