In Parasha Emor this week, the Torah covers a number of topics:
- laws regarding the purity of the Kohanim, including whom they can marry, what physical problems would disqualify them from performing duties in the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and who is entitled to eat from the holy offerings of the Mishkan;
- what physical blemishes disqualify an animal from being an offering in the Mishkan;
- sanctifying God’s name;
- the observance of Passover, counting the Omer, Shavuot, Rosh Hashonah, Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret;
- the Menorah and the Showbread in the Mishkan; and
- blasphemy (disgracing God’s name).
Immediately following the passages about counting the Omer and Shavuot is a very special mitzvah – the Peah (corners). (Leviticus 23:22) This commandment is very simple: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not remove completely the corners of your field as you reap and you shall not gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and the proselyte [someone who has converted to Judaism]. I am the Lord, your God.” The Torah then gives us commandments about the High Holidays.
I find several things about this mitzvah very interesting.
The mitzvah has a notable place in the parasha. Since Shavuot comes at the time of the wheat harvest in Israel, having the mitzvah of Peah positioned right after Shavuot was a good reminder to leave the corners of the fields at harvest time. In his commentary to this verse, written more than 1,000 years after the destruction of the Second Temple, Rashi explains that its placement here, with Shavuot on one side and Rosh Hashonah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot on the other, teaches us that whoever performs this mitzvah is as if he built the Temple and brought his offerings there. Rabbi J.H. Hertz taught that this placement of the mitzvah of Peah meant that one cannot really celebrate Shavuot unless he has shared his bounty with those who need the Peah.
The mitzvah has a special relation to those who have chosen to be Jewish. The proselyte is mentioned with the poor because, as someone new to Judaism, he or she would be new to the community, and would not have had family lands that were distributed to each of the tribes when they entered Israel after the Exodus.
The mitzvah is one of five mitzvot that “have no prescribed measure”. (Mishnah, Peah 1:1). That is, there is no minimum amount that must be left. But then, the Mishnah goes on for several pages describing what makes up a separate field, because if you have two fields, you are obligated to leave the corners of each field un-harvested. And the Mishnah actually suggests that in some communities the custom is to use the number of those who need the Peah to judge how much should be left.
The Mishnah explains that the owner of the field must leave the field open to those who need the Peah three times each day during the harvest period. The owner may not portion out the un-harvested grain to those who need it – they must glean it themselves. This rule permits these special gleaners to come to the field when the owner is not there and take for themselves, even though this means some might get more and some get less. This rule accomplishes two goals. First, the gleaners must still work to reap the harvest, and work gives people dignity. Second, the owner and the gleaners do not see one another, so the gleaners are not embarrassed.
Finally, this mitzvah reminds us that the things we think we own because we worked for them really belong to us because we partnered with God to create them. Like the Peah, God has apportioned some to us, and some to our neighbors.
While these days most of us live in cities and our only involvement in agriculture is eating crops, rather than growing them, we live the spirit of this mitzvah when we assist our neighbors by giving them opportunities to earn a living or acquire food and other necessary items for life. In this way, we are being Loyal to our community and Helpful, Courteous and Kind to those around us.
Shabbat shalom and happy Lag B’Omer (next Monday night and Tuesday),