A Rabbi, preparing his congregation for a charitable appeal once famously said: “I have good news to tell you. We have already accomplished 50% of our goal! I have spoken to the poor and they are ready to receive. Now all we have to do is convince the wealthy to give!"
Recognizing that we will not always be able to convince the wealthy to give, the Torah obligates a landowner to provide a series of five mandatory “gifts to the poor.”
1. Leket: Stalks of grain that fall to the ground during the harvest must be left for collection by the poor.
2. Peah: A portion (preferably a corner) of the field must be left unharvested for harvest by the poor.
3. Olelot: Small, unformed clusters of grapes must be left on the vine for harvest by the poor.
4. Peret: Solitary grapes that fall to the ground during the grape harvest must be left for collection by the poor.
5. Shikcha: “Forgotten” bushels that remain in the field after the ingathering has been completed must be left for collection by the poor.
These obligations do not apply in our day due to a rabbinic concern, which developed over time, that these gifts would be stolen and not left for the poor.
Although these laws no longer apply in our day, a great deal can be learned from them concerning biblical ethics-particularly as they apply to the problem of poverty.
Great attention is paid in the Oral Law, recorded in the Mishna, to the laws of these gifts. From the rabbinic discussion, a striking distinction emerges between these gifts to the poor and the general obligation of charity.
According to the rabbinic scholars, when we enter the world of matanot la’evyonim, we enter a world of conflicting potential ownership. Unlike charity which is given by an individual to those in need, these gifts are not “given” by the landowner to the poor. They are no longer his to give. Once specific items attain the status of matanot la’evyonim they no longer belong to the landowner. They are instead automatically removed from his possession by Divine law and placed into a unique legal category. They become ownerless objects over which only the poor can gain possession. In short, these are “gifts” legally granted by God to the poor.
A fundamental tension is consequently reflected in the extensive rabbinic discussion on this topic. Exactly which items, the rabbis ask, automatically become "gifts to the poor" and which do not? Where does the landowner’s ownership end and the ownership of the poor begin? The scholars recognize that strict guidelines must be drawn to address potentially conflicting claims of ownership between the landowner and the poor.
The rabbis explain, for example, that leket, fallen grain, includes only “expected loss” and is therefore limited to one or two stalks of grain falling from the farmer’s hand at one time. If, for some reason, more than that amount falls at once, the grain remains in the possession of the landowner. Even further, one or two stalks that fall due to unexpected circumstances (e.g., the farmer is stuck by a thorn, causing him to drop the grain in his hand) do not become leket.
In the case of shikcha, forgotten bundles, only one or two “forgotten” bundles left behind in one location at the time of ingathering belong to the poor. If a greater number are forgotten they remain in the possession of the landowner.
A landowner does not have the right to designate these “gifts” to specific individuals, even if those individuals are impoverished. God grants equal access to all who are in need to enter the field and collect the material that is now legally theirs. The amount collected by any one individual will depend upon his industriousness.
On another front, the definition of who is “poor” is also discussed in the Mishna, with the rabbis limiting the designation of “poverty” to individuals who lack the funds necessary to provide for a year’s worth of food and clothing. Even an otherwise wealthy individual who finds himself temporarily in such a position (e.g., a traveler who is far from his home and has no access to his possessions) is considered “poor” and is entitled to benefit from the gifts in the locality in which he finds himself.
These and a myriad of other detailed rulings reflect the unique nature of matanot la’evyonim as items that automatically move from the possession of one individual to the possession of another, without direct interaction between the participants. Great care is exhibited by the rabbis to clearly define the boundaries of ownership of these items, in order to protect the rights of both the landowner and the poor.
A fundamental question emerges. Why does the Torah bequeath these specific gifts to the poor in the way that it does? Why not simply obligate the landowner to hand over a designated amount of charity to those in need? Why bother with a complicated formula that results in issues of conflicting ownership?
C. The answer lies in recognizing the significant place that these gifts to the poor occupy in the majestic societal vision of Torah law.
Focusing on the phenomenon of land ownership, the one specific criterion that has, throughout human history, distinguished the “haves” from the “have-nots,” the law conveys critical lessons for both the landowner and the poor.
Lessons for the Landowner Lessons for the Poor
1. The land is not truly yours. Your stewardship is contingent upon the divine beneficence of the “true owner of all.” The limits of your possession will be marked by the rights of the poor who are granted free entry to the fields to harvest/collect that which is theirs. 1. You are not totally land poor. You have rights to the land and to its produce. You are granted free access to the fields to harvest/collect that which is yours.
2. You do not really need to “have it all.” Your life will not be changed by that stalk or bundle that you leave behind. Move on with a full, peaceful heart and allow for collection by those in greater need. 2. “Workfare” and not “welfare” is the order of the day. You should not subsist on handouts from others. Enter “your” field, harvest and collect “your” produce with dignity and self-respect. No one will hand these gifts to you and the amount you acquire will directly depend upon your own industry and diligence.
With sensitivity and balance, the Torah moves to limit the hubris of the landowner and to magnify the dignity and self-reliance of the poor. Properly understood and observed, the visionary laws of matanot la’evyonim are designed to lessen the psychic gap between the landed and the landless, thus contributing towards the establishment of a truly just society.
While each of the lessons derived from the mitzvot of matanot la’evyonim are relevant for our times, one point resonates with particular power.
As indicated in our study, The Torah’s demand that the landowner relinquish ownership over portions of his produce is designed to benefit not only the poor but the landowner himself. By forcing the farmer to “let go,” the Torah reminds him that he does not really need to “have it all”; happiness will not be found in that last piece of grain, that fallen stalk of wheat.
This paradigm should move us to ask ourselves: do we really need to “have it all”? Will the next acquisition, the next addition to the house, the next technological gadget, make the difference that we look for in our lives?
A study performed in the University of Rochester and published in the June 2009 Journal of Research in Personality yielded surprising results concerning the relationship between happiness and wealth. Dividing goals into two categories, extrinsic (e.g., wealth, fame and personal image) and intrinsic (e.g., meaningful relationships, health and personal growth), the study surveyed 147 recent graduates concerning their central life objectives. The researchers discovered that those subjects who focused on and achieved intrinsic goals attained higher levels of self-esteem and a greater sense of well-being. Those who focused on and attained the extrinsic goals of wealth and fame, on the other hand, experienced higher levels of anxiety and unhappiness.
In a similar vein, highly acclaimed University of Illinois psychologist Ed Diener, who has been doing research on happiness for more than two decades, maintains: “Materialism is toxic to happiness.” Even rich materialists, he concludes, are not as happy as those who care less about getting and spending.
Judaism embraces the notion of material success and achievement. The physical world is a gift from God, meant to be appreciated and enjoyed. When, however, material success becomes our central life goal, we doom ourselves to continued frustration. Nothing we have will ever be enough; nothing we attain will satisfy us.
Like the long-ago farmer in that forgotten field, our society must come to recognize that true happiness can only be achieved when we learn to “let go.”