This mitzvah is not for farmers only

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By Rabbi James R. Michaels

This week’s Torah portion is Emor, Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23.


Emor includes a discussion of the various holy times and seasons of the Jewish calendar. These laws are familiar for two reasons. First, there are other places in the Torah that describe when and how the festivals are to be observed. Second, the pertinent verses are read in the synagogue services for every holiday.

Starting with Pesach in the spring (which is considered the first holiday in the Jewish calendar), the Torah describes the various sacrificial offerings that were to be brought on each festival, concluding with Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret inthe fall.

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A close reading of the text indicates that these holidays were primarily agricultural. The spring holidays coincide with the harvest of the winter wheat and barley, while the fall holidays celebrate the completion of the summer harvest.

In the middle of this discussion of the holidays, the Torah seems to digress and includes a brief passage of supreme ethical importance. Leviticus 23:22 reprises a law instructing the farmers not to harvest the fields completely.


Instead of reaping the field from edge to edge, the corners of the field are to be left unharvested.

Moreover, the reapers are told not to return after the initial harvest to pick up the grain that has fallen on the ground. The corners and the dropped grain are to be left for the poor.

This practice is described in beautiful detail in the book of Ruth. Having returned destitute from their sojourn in Moab, Ruth is instructed by her mother-in-law, Naomi, to go to the fields and collect the gleanings. We read how the owner of the field, Boaz, sees Ruth and takes pity on her, instructing his workers to be extra generous with the unharvested grain.

And the full benefits of following this mitzvah are described at the end, when Boaz marries Ruth, thus completing her reward and her family’s salvation.

The medieval commentator Rashi quotes a teaching that the reward is continual. He writes that those who observe the mitzvah are considered as if they personally have rebuilt the Temple and have brought the required holiday offerings.

The verse’s concluding words, “I am the Lord your God,” confirm that God will fulfill this promise.

Since most of us aren’t farmers, we can recapture the spirit of the mitzvah of the unharvested corners by being generous in giving to charity, especially those organizations  that help feed the hungry.

As the holidays celebrate God’s bounty, we should be mindful of the poor whenever we celebrate special occasions.

One last point: The Talmud teaches that even those who receive charity are required to give tzedakah to those who are even less fortunate. Therefore, the spirit of the unharvested corner is a gift that keeps on giving. Let’s be sure to do our part.

Questions for discussion
At the Passover seder, we say, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” Since it’s unlikely that anyone will come to the door asking to eat, how can we infuse meaning into those words?

Weddings and bar/bat mitzvah celebrations can be times of overindulgence. Can we temper that through generosity to charity?

Rabbi James Michaels is director of clinical pastoral education at the Charles E Smith Life Communities.

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