Gifts to the poor - shared cooperation

Ways of helping the poor according to the mitzvot of the Torah. The Torah does not advocate the creation of artificial equality, but rather, cooperation and correlation between all sectors of society.

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Rabbi Eliezer Melamed,

מצווה. הרב מלמד
מצווה. הרב מלמד
פלאש 90

The Torah’s Guidance in Helping the Poor

One of the central ethical questions in every society is how to help the poor. In principle, the basic assumption that society is obligated to assist the needy could be challenged, but as a result of the Torah’s influence on human culture the revelation of good in man has been strengthened, and in practice, this question no longer exists. Nevertheless, there is still a need to clarify what is the most suitable way to help the needy, in the most beneficial and respectful way. Some people simplistically claim that the needy deserve to have all their needs taken care of. They should not have to ask for favors! Society is obligated to help them! Some people go as far as to claim that as long as society has not provided them with all their needs, it is society who is to blame for their condition. However, as we shall see, the Torah’s instruction is significantly more complex, with the aim of helping the poor by having him share the responsibility for his own fate. In addition, Torah instructs that assistance to the poor should be provided through a continuous correlation between the rich and the needy, with the rich sharing their happy occasions with the poor, and the poor thanking and respecting them for that.

Four Means of Helping

The Torah commanded us to help the poor in four ways: firstly, and primarily, through agricultural gifts that the poor would collect by themselves from the fields. The second way was through ‘tzedakah‘ (charity) to supplement the needs of the poor if the gathering of the gifts did not meet their basic needs. Incidentally, the highest level of ‘tzedakah‘ is to help the needy acquire a profession and find work.

The third way is through ‘ma’aser ani’ (the poor tithe). After the owners of fields collected their crops, they would set aside ‘terumot‘ and ‘ma’aserot‘ (tithes), and in the third and sixth years of the seven-year Shemittah cycle, they would set aside ‘ma’aser sheni‘ (a second tithe) for the poor, and by means of it, the poor would be able to live relatively comfortably for two years out of seven. It is interesting to note that this was not a fixed allowance, rather, the regular portion of their basic needs was provided by collecting ‘matnot aniyim’ and supplemented by ‘tzedakah‘. For two years out of seven, they received additional assistance.

The fourth way is by having them share in the mitzvot of happy occasions – in the feasts of the ‘Regalim‘ (Pilgrimage Festivals) and family celebrations, and this was one of the goals of ‘ma’aser sheni’and ‘ma’aser behema‘ (the tithes of the beast). And once again, this was not a fixed allowance, rather, in every joyful event, the hosts of a feast were commanded to share their feast with the poor in the community, and the poor are commanded to participate in the celebrations, bless their hosts, and wish them to merit celebrating many more happy occasions among the nation of Israel.

It is possible to expand on the significances of the various gifts, but at the moment, I will concentrate on the ‘matnot aniyim’ (gifts of the poor), which is the primary way of helping the poor.

Five Gifts for the Poor

The mitzvah is for a person to share the five gifts from the blessings of his harvest: ‘pe’ah‘ (corners of the field), ‘shichichah‘ (forgotten produce), ‘leket‘ (gleanings), ‘peret‘ (one or two grapes that fell to the ground), and ‘olelot‘ (small clusters with few grapes). ‘Pe’ah‘ – is to leave at least one sixtieth of the harvest at the edge of the field, and if the blessing of one’s harvest increased, or the needs of the poor heightened, it is fitting to leave more. ‘Shichichah‘- is if one forgot to pick or gather some fruit from his field, he would leave it for the poor. ‘Leket‘ – if during the reaping one or two stalks fell to the ground, one must leave them for the poor. ‘Peret‘ and ‘olelot‘ pertain only to grapes: ‘peret‘ – if during the vintage one or two grapes fell from a cluster, they should be left for the poor; ‘olelot‘ – if there are small clusters, they should be left for the poor.

Today, for numerous reasons, it does not pay for the poor to go to the fields and collect their gifts (as a way of illustration: in the past, the value of the agricultural produce of the GNP was about seventy percent; today it is about a quarter of one percent).

Nevertheless, from the principles emerging from these mitzvoth, we can learn about the ideal way to help the poor, according to the Torah.

The Poor are Responsible for their Livelihood

First of all, the mitzvah is for the poor to come to the fields and gather these gifts of the harvest by themselves. Therefore, only the poor were permitted to pick the gifts, but the owner of the field or anyone who was not poor, was not allowed to pick the gifts for a poor friend who could make it to the field, and if he did pick, whatever he picked was confiscated and given to the other poor people who came to the field (Rambam, Laws of Matnot Aniyim 2:19).

Even if there were nine elderly poor people who asked the owner of the field to reap the ‘pe’ah‘ for them so they could share it amongst themselves equally, and one young man demanded that everyone reap for themselves, we listen to the young man who spoke correctly and according to halakha, i.e., that the mitzvah of the gifts is that the poor collect the gifts by themselves. However, in regards to a tall tree like a palm tree, where if the poor were to compete in reaping its fruits things could get dangerous, the Sages determined that the field owner would pick the ‘pe’ah‘ for them all, and divide it equally (Mishnah Pe’ah 4:1; 4; Rambam 2:16-20).

Concern for Society as a Whole

Another principle can be learned from ‘matnot anyim‘, that helping the poor should be done in the most economical way for the rich, and the most beneficial way for the poor. For indeed, these mitzvoth encompass immense wisdom, for if, for example, an owner of a field pays a hundred shekels to harvest or pick a hundred kilos of fruit, in order to harvest the leftover fruits of ‘leket‘, ‘shichichah‘, ‘peret‘, and ‘olelot‘, would cost him at least five times as much due to the huge effort required to harvest the few remaining fruits scattered in the field, or on the trees. Thus the poor, who in any case have no better jobs, benefit from collecting the remaining fruits in the fields, while the owner of the field does not incur any great loss.

Not only that, but the gathering of the fruit overlooked on the trees prevents insects from being attracted to them and causing diseases for the tree. In addition, the few grapes that fell from the clusters usually were a bit blemished, so that the vine owner’s loss by leaving them for the poor was negligible, while the poor were happy to collect them.

Regarding ‘pe’ah‘, the cost of harvesting and picking ‘pe’ah‘ is equal to that of the rest of the grain and fruits in the field. Nevertheless, there is immense wisdom in the mitzva to give ‘pe’ah‘ at the edge of the field, because when the owners harvest their fields and reach the edge of the field, they usually are exhausted from work, and as a result, it is convenient for them to be generous and leave more for the poor. All the more so when the owners of trees decided to leave the fruit at the top of the tree as ‘pe’ah‘, it being more difficult for them to reach, the poor orphan children would climb up the trees, and pick the fruit effortlessly.

It should be added that all these mitzvot also educated the owners of the fields to be generous, and to distance themselves from greed.

Today’s Challenge

Many other ideas are hidden in the halakha’s of ‘matnot aniyim‘ that I have not detailed. In any event, we have learned a number of important principles, and we are all compelled to weigh the possibilities and think about how these mitzvot can be applied to our times.

In the meantime, we have learned that the idea of “class war” or aspiring for artificial equality, is totally unacceptable. The Torah emphasizes brotherhood between all, and guides everyone to cooperate for the benefit of society at large.

The Measurement of Taking ‘Challah

Last week, as a result of a transition to new software, an error occurred in all the numbers of the measurements for taking ‘challah’. Therefore, I will clarify the halakha once again, with additional explanations.

Q: What is the practical halakha regarding the weight of flour obligated in the taking of ‘challah‘ with a blessing?

A: From the amount of one kilo and a half of flour, ‘challah‘ should be set aside with a blessing, and from one kilo and one hundred and fifty grams, ‘challah‘ should be set aside without a blessing.

The measurement is determined by the volume of flour of 43 ‘beitzim’ (eggs) and one fifth of an egg, which is 2.16 liters. It would be excellent if we had a utensil of this volume to measure, but since we are used to measuring by weight, we have to compare the volume to the weight. According to Rambam, the weight of the flour is about two-thirds of its volume (when the flour is densely packed), thus, for flour weighing 1.471 kilo ‘challah’ must be taken (Laws of Bikurim 6:15). According to many poskim (Jewish law authorities), the flour should be approximated in its normal state as it is sold, or as it is poured out of the bag (Magen Avraham 456:4, Machatzit HaShekel, ibid; Pri Chadash 1), and then, its weight is about half of its volume. And since their opinion should be taken into consideration, ‘challah‘ should be taken without a blessing already from the measurement of 1.150 kilo.

However, according to the accounting of Rabbi Chaim Na’eh, the measurements are larger – 1.666 kilos with a blessing, and 1.250 without a blessing; but this is because he calculated them according to the weight of the coin mentioned by the Rambam (zuz-darham), after the Turks added onto it an additional 12 percent. Its weight in the days of the Rambam was 2.83 grams, but about four hundred years ago the Turks increased its weight to 3.2 grams. After becoming absolutely clear that the weight of the darham during the days of Rambam was about 12 percent less, the measurements should be updated, and the measurement according to Rambam for taking ‘challah‘ is 1.471 kilos, and not 1.666 (the same holds true for a ‘beitza‘, whose volume is 50 cc and not 56, and the measurement of a ‘revi’it‘ is 75 cc, and not 86).

The Measurements of the ‘Chazon Ish’ Need Not be taken into Account

There is an additional accounting of measurements known as ‘shiur Chazon Ish’, based on the writings of Rabbi Yechezkal ben Yehuda Landau (‘Noda Biyhuda’), who is of the opinion that today’s eggs are smaller than the eggs spoken by our Sages, and therefore, all the measurements are double. However, in addition to the fact that this approach is extremely difficult, all the Sephardi poskim and the majority of Ashkenazi poskim did not take it into account, and the prevalent ‘minhag‘ (custom) is also not to take it into account. Therefore, already from a kilo and half of wheat flour, ‘challah‘ should be set aside with a blessing, and from a kilo and one hundred and fifty grams, ‘challah‘ should be set aside without a blessing.

All According to the Type of Flour

Everything I wrote is in regards to regular wheat flour, but whole wheat flour is more airy, and already from approximately 1.430 kilograms ‘challah‘ should be taken with a blessing, and from 1.100 kilos, ‘challah‘ should be set aside without a blessing. Barley flour is even more airy, and already from approximately 1.060 kilo, ‘challah‘ should be taken with a blessing, and from 880 grams, ‘challah‘ should be taken without a blessing.

In order to solve all the doubts, it would be appropriated to manufacture a 2.160 liter container for careful measuring of all types of flour that require a blessing when taking ‘challah’. However, as we have learned, there are some poskim who are of the opinion that the flour should be densely packed, consequently, as long as the flour fills the container to the marked measurement, ‘challah’ would be set aside without a blessing, however, only if the flour reached the marked measurement after beating the container three times in order for the flour to sink, would a blessing be recited.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew. Other interesting, informative, and thought-provoking articles by Rabbi Melamed can be found at: http://revivimen.yhb.org.il/






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