Class Notes

Mitzvot #216 through 223 require a farmer to leave part of his or her harvest for the poor.  These mitzvot have many common features, and the author discusses them in the first essay.  Most of the mitzvot on this topic appear together here, but some appear later in our study.  We will start with the things these mitzvot have in common, and then define the unique aspects of each mitzvah.

            The shoresh of these mitzvot might be surprising.  We might have expected the author to say the shoresh is to make sure poor people have food to eat.  But that is not what our author says.  Rather, he sees the shoresh as inculcating good moral traits in the farmer who is commanded to leave some of the harvest for the poor.  The author explained earlier that the shoresh for each mitzvah is the benefit God intended for the person who does the mitzvah and that a person’s character is formed by how the person behaves.  Thus, the focus of the shoresh is on the farmer who is complying with these mitzvot rather than on the poor people who benefit from the farmer’s actions. 

The author mentions several ways in which doing these mitzvot influences the farmer’s moral character.  First, it inculcates a generous spirit.  Also, it encourages empathy.  The author imagines the farmer watching poor people who are watching the crops grow.  The poor people yearn for part of the prosperity they anticipate the farmer will have when the crops ripen.  If the farmer fails to empathize with those people, the farmer is being hardhearted and evil spirited.  That isn’t what God wants of us.  The shoresh extends another step.  The author says that God is likely to treat us the way we choose to treat others.

These mitzvot apply d’oraita in Israel when the Jews are settled there.  The author has not defined the boundaries of Israel or the parameters for “when the Jews are settled there.”  These requirements are also the parameters for the mitzvot of shmitah and yovel that we saw earlier, and are similar to the parameters for many other mitzvot we will see later in our study.   It may be that, if we consider these mitzvot as a group, we might find an outline for how the Torah would have us structure a Jewish society.  All of these mitzvot apply d’rabanan outside Israel.

The mitzvot in this series come in pairs: one positive mitzvah and a corresponding negative mitzvah.  For example, mitzvah #216 is a positive mitzvah to leave part of certain fields unharvested, and mitzvah #217 is a negative mitzvah to refrain from harvesting those parts of the fields.  Normally, the punishment for violating a negative mitzvah is malkos.  But the person who broke the mitzvah is not punishable if the violation can be rectified.  Someone who fails to leave the required produce for the poor violates a negative mitzvah.  But if the farmer still has produce from that field, the farmer can rectify the violation by giving some of that produce to the poor.  However, if the farmer chooses not to do that, or if the farmer no longer has produce from that field, the farmer is potentially punishable for violating the negative mitzvah.

The author says that d’oraita, poor people and converts can collect the produce the farmer is required to leave.  The author does not say how poor a person has to be to qualify.  He does explain that the “ger” here is a convert rather than a “ger toshav,” a non-Jew who lives in Israel under Jewish rule and who commits to observing the mitzvot that apply to non-Jews.  D’rabanan, if non-Jewish poor people take the produce, we allow them to do so to encourage peace between neighbors.

The farmer has no say in which poor people collect the produce the farmer leaves for them.  Rather, the poor people come to collect and decide between themselves how to distribute what they collect.  The poor people can decide to harvest together and divide the produce, but only if all of the poor people collecting agree; otherwise, even one poor person can insist that each collects individually. There are designated times of the day when the poor people can come to collect.  The produce does not belong to a poor person until that person picks it up.  That rule is parallel to the rule for someone who finds lost property.  The author refers to the rules the poor people have to follow, but does not explain in detail.  But the aspects he does mention convey a sense that the rabbis took a very practical approach to defining these mitzvot.

These mitzvot do allow poor and landless people to get part of the society’s harvest.  The distribution system advantages poor people who are ambitious and hardworking.  But the people least able to care for themselves do not get much help from this system.  We will need to see how other mitzvot effect that balance.


            Mitzvot #216 requires a farmer to leave the edge of a field, the “peah,” unharvested, and mitzvah #217 prohibits the farmer from harvesting the entire field without leaving the edge for the poor.  The farmer must leave the edge of the field so the poor will know how to find it.  D’oraita there is no minimum amount; it is up to the farmer to decide how much of the field to leave. D’rabanan, though, the farmer is required to leave at least 1/60th of the field.  In deciding how much to leave, the farmer must consider how large the field is; 1/60th of a tiny field would not leave a significant amount of produce for the poor.  The farmer should leave more of the field if the harvest is a rich one, or if there are many people in need.

            The farmer has to leave peah from a field that has five characteristics:

  1. The produce must grow from the earth.  That excludes mushrooms, for example.
  2. The field must be growing a food crop.  That excludes produce grown for animal food or for dyes.
  3. The plants in the field must be tended and cared for.  That excludes food that grows wild.
  4. The produce must all ripen at about the same time so that it can all be harvested at once.  That excludes things like figs that ripen at different times even when they are growing on the same tree.
  5. The food being harvested must be capable of being stored.  That excludes things like lettuce, which has a short shelf life.

The author gives a long list of food crops that fit these requirements:  grains, nuts, grapes, almonds and dates, among others.

            In his list of questions for further study, the author mentions situations when one person does not own the field outright.  For example, partners might own the field.  In that case, who decides how much peah to leave, and whose share of the produce does the peah come out of?

            Mitzvah #220 requires the farmer to leave peah from a vineyard, and mitzvah #221 prohibits the farmer from harvesting the peah from the vineyard.  The source verse refers to the peah of a vineyard as “ol’lot.” The author explains different opinions about what the farmer is required to leave for the poor when the farmer harvests the vineyard or when a farmer harvests an orchard of fruit trees.

            According to our author, Rambam thinks ol’lot is to grapes what peah is to other crops.  So the farmer would be required to leave the vines at the edge of a vineyard for the poor to harvest.  Further, Rambam says that the peah of an olive orchard is called “p’orot,” and the farmer is required to leave that for the poor.  Based on the cases of grape vines and olive trees, Rambam concludes that the farmer is required to leave peah from any orchard of fruit trees.

            Ramban disagrees.  He interprets the term ol’lot to mean grapes on the vines that are not part of large bunches, and Ramban thinks that those grapes must be left on the vines for the poor.  He bases his reasoning in part on a passage in the Gemara that summarizes what a farmer has to leave for the poor in fields of various types of plants.  In discussing vineyards, that Gemara lists ol’lot and peah as separate items.

 Ramban agrees with Rambam that a farmer must leave trees at the edges of fruit orchards and olive groves for the poor, but he does not have a source verse for that.  Rather, Ramban derives that from the use of the common term “ahareha,” “after it,” in the verse that talks about olive groves, Deut. 24:20, and the verse that talks about vineyards, Deut. 24:21.

The author mentions that Ramban says Rambam has this topic right when he discusses it in the Mishneh Torah.   Apparently our author’s description of Rambam’s opinion is based on the text the author had of Rambam’s Sefer haMitzvot.  The footnotes in the Feldheim translation try to untangle various versions available to us of both Rambam’s Sefer haMitzvot and the Mishneh Torah.  Rambam continued to revise and edit his works throughout his lifetime.  He wrote the Sefer haMitzvot in Arabic, and that was translated into Hebrew.  Different translations may have interpreted the Arabic text differently.  And there is always the possibility of copying errors.  This all serves as a reminder that what we have in our modern printed books is not always what the author wrote or meant.

Rambam, in the Mishneh Torah as we have it, says the farmer must leave grapes that aren’t part of large bunches for the poor.  It is not immediately clear which mitzvah Rambam thinks the farmer is observing by leaving those grapes.          

Assuming ol’lot are grapes not part of a bunch, the author says that if all the grapes in the vineyard grow that way instead of growing in bunches, the farmer must leave the entire vineyard for the poor.  Also, the poor may not start picking their ol’lot until the farmer begins to harvest the grapes he or she is allowed to harvest.


            Mitzvah #218 requires the farmer to leave “leket” for the poor, and mitzvah #219 forbids the farmer from collecting the leket.  Leket is the grain that falls from the harvester’s hand during the process of harvesting.  Imagine a worker harvesting grain by hand, cutting it with a scythe.  The worker gathers stalks in one hand, and then cuts them off with the scythe held in the other hand.  If the worker drops one or two stalks by mistake after cutting them, those stalks must be left for the poor.  If the worker drops three or more stalks, the worker can go back, pick them up and add them to the harvested grain.  If the worker drops the stalks because something specific went wrong, for example the worker injured his or her hand, then the worker may pick up the stalks even if the worker dropped only one or two stalks.  In doubtful cases, the stalks should be left for the poor.

            Mitzvah #222 requires the farmer to leave grapes that fall during the harvesting process for the poor, and mitzvah #223 prohibits the farmer from gathering up those fallen grapes.  The fallen grapes are called “peret hakerem;” peret hakerem is to grapes as leket is to grain.  Like leket, if one or two grapes drop from the bunch during the harvesting process the harvester must leave them for the poor, but if three or more grapes fall at once the harvester may pick them up.  In this context, says our author, someone who puts a basket on the ground under the grape vine while harvesting the grapes is “stealing from the poor.”   If the farmer harvests by picking the grapes and dropping them on the ground, then returning to pick them up later, any he fails to pick up are peret hakerem and must be left for the poor. 

            There is one more pair of mitzvot on this topic that we will see later in our study (mitzvot #592 and 593.)  If a farmer is harvesting and mistakenly leaves some of the harvest in the field, the farmer may not return and pick up the forgotten produce.  Rather, the farmer must leave the forgotten produce for the poor.

            These mitzvot have little direct applicability now.  Even if we do grow food, poor people do not come to collect their portion so we are not required to leave produce for them to collect.  But these mitzvot required farmers, the quintessential earners in society, to share what they grew with the poor, and created an opportunity for poor people willing to work to share some of the bounty.  We might try to think of analogies to these situations in our economy.  Our author says these mitzvot should help us develop character traits of generosity and of empathy for the poor.  We might visualize how we could develop those characteristics in ourselves under current economic realities.

We have seen several examples in recent classes where rabbinic readings of Biblical verses seem to stretch the verses’ meaning.  In this series of mitzvot, we have several examples where the rabbis derive halachah from the source verses by reading them very carefully.  For example, the source verse for peah refers to the farmer “cutting” the produce, but the rabbis say that the mitzvah applies no matter what technique the farmer uses to harvest the produce.  The verse also says to leave the peah for “the poor and the ger.”  The rabbis see this as a limitation: if there are no poor people to come and pick the produce the farmer left, the farmer can harvest that too.  In the language the rabbis use, the farmer must leave the produce for the poor and for converts, not “for ravens and bats.”