Tzeddaka or Charity is a cornerstone of Judaism. But equally important, is how it is administered.
In this week’s parasha we learn that when a farmer harvested his crop, he was obliged to leave a corner of the field (pe’ah) for the poor. When he came to reap the grain, if one or two stalks fell to the ground, they had to be were left for the poor. That was called leket. And stray sheaves that were forgotten and left in the field were also the property of the poor (shichecha.)
In times when agriculture was the mainstay of Israel’s economy, there were many opportunities for the poor to access food.
It would therefore be common on harvest days that the reapers would be followed by the poor who would glean what was left behind. The Book of Ruth describes this scenario whereby Ruth is able to collect ample grain to feed herself and her mother-in-law, Naomi.
The great 16th century commentator, Rav Moshe Alshich (d. Safed, 1593) asks: Wouldn’t it have been more efficient and more dignified for the farmer to harvest his entire field and then distribute a percentage to the poor? After all, he had to make an allocation to the Kohen and the Levi. Surely, it would have been better to have had an additional handout for the poor?
The Alshich explains that the Torah much prefers that poor participate in the harvesting. Rather than simply receiving a gift, poor people can regard themselves as having worked for what they have received. In that way they can feel they are engaging in a job of agricultural labour to achieve their entitlement. Rav Alshich says that if one can help the needy person in this way, then we are providing for them bederech kavod, with dignity rather than degrading them with charity.
For most of us, our lives no longer revolve around working in fields. Yet we can be sensitive to those whom we help. If someone need assistance, try and find a way that protects them from any embarrassment and preserves their self-esteem.
Dayan Ivan Binstock