The Corners of My Field

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not completely reap the corners of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the Eternal am your God. – Leviticus 23:22 (Parashat Emor)

It looks so simple, on the surface: when you gather the harvest, leave some for the poor. Why, then, do we need an entire tractate of the Talmud to talk about it, and why does Maimonides devote an entire volume of the Mishneh Torah to it?

The commandment may be simple, but human nature is not. The minute people heard “leave the corners, leave the gleanings” the questions began: how much of the corners? On every field of any size? And what exactly are gleanings? What if a worker drops an entire basket of produce? What if you don’t have a field, but a silver smithy? What if the harvest is really bad that year? What about… on and on.

There are also questions about the recipients: who gets the gleanings? Who are the poor? Who is the stranger? Why do they deserve free stuff?

Actually, that last question is a ringer. The rabbis addressed the question of fraud but they don’t question that a poor person deserves food to eat. Indeed, Maimonides says that while we can question a beggar’s request for money, if a person asks for food, if they say they are hungry, the observant Jew has to give, or at the very least, speak kindly when they say a regretful “no.”

I live in a part of the country where I am asked for money on the street on a regular basis. I have a son who trained as a social worker who feels very strongly that one should not give street people money. I have a colleague who has made a very cogent argument for giving money to people who ask for it on the street. And I hear Maimonides’ words scolding me when I pass someone and say, “No, I’m sorry, not today.”

I resolve my dilemma by giving as much cash as I can to my local food bank. Canned goods are nice, but the truth is they can do a lot more with cash. They can buy what people actually need as opposed to our fantasies of what they need. They can buy at steep discounts, too. My “harvest” doesn’t involve corners of fields or gleanings, it is in my checkbook, and so I give what I can.

There are a growing number of poor families and individuals in the United States. The recovery from the Great Recession has left many behind.  We live in a cruel economy at the moment, and funds for food stamps have been cut again and again. It is up to us to dig deep and give to organizations that feed hungry people. Our tradition demands no less.

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

8 thoughts on “The Corners of My Field”

  1. My Bubbe, she should rest in peace, taught me to always keep a few coins “extra” in my purse to give to those who begged on the street. As a child I asked her how she knew the person really needed the money and she told me it was not up to her to judge, that was up to G-d, but it was her duty to share what little she had. She said The Torah taught her so.

    From that day to today, I always keep a few dollars “extra” in my purse to give to anyone who asks. I don’t judge the person asking and I can only hope the person is truly in need. I don’t always give all my dollars “extra” away because I see fewer people here asking, but if I do, it is ok.

    1. Sheila, your Bubbe sounds wonderful, and the way you honor her memory is wonderful too. She would agree with my colleague Rabbi John Rosove, who posted the article I cited in my post, above.

  2. Another great teaching. Thank you.
    I don’t give to the street people. Instead I donate to our local food bank twice a year and donate canned goods whenever we have a food drive.
    I guess it’s one way to look at it…that it’s up to G-d to judge.

    1. That’s why we say “Baruch Dayan Emet” when someone dies: there is only one true judge. I think the Food Bank is a great option, that’s why I choose it too.

  3. Rabbi, I just love you. (Not like that — we’re both married!)

    You show all of us how much wisdom and common sense there is in the Torah and Talmud. No wonder the Jews have survived all the centuries of obstacles.

    Once I was outside a convenience-but-mostly-liquor store and a ragged dirty man asked for money. It was obvious he was going to go in there and buy some cheap liquor. My friend and I decided that while on the whole, you shouldn’t give money to street people, the two bucks’ worth of change weren’t going to make much difference. And so what if this man was going to buy booze? It would get him through the night and make his life tolerable for a few hours. We realized, there but for the grace of God, goes I. So we gave him the cash (he looked surprised and delighted — I’m sure he was used to being ignored) and I hope he had one good evening.

    It was in a city far from my own, but my friend and I had the means to go on a vacation and drink good wine. Making our gleanings Mad Dog 20-20 or something. Big picture says we did the wrong thing, but we felt it was the right thing to do in that moment.

    1. Oh, Lurk, I hear you! I was once out walking in Albuquerque with a nun (long story) and a man came up to us and told us he was hungry. She said to him, OK, what do you want to eat? He looked astonished and said, uh, a burger would be nice. McDonald’s OK? she asked. Sure, he replied. And we went into a McDonald’s and he had a burger; we had Diet Coke, I think.

      I have done that a few times, when I had the time. I remember a very young man who did that (outside another McD’s) and who was FLOORED to hear that I was a Jew – he thought all Jews were rich and didn’t care about anyone. So I did some PR for the Tribe by buying us both breakfast, and eating with him.

      And yes, sometimes I have felt like the moment suggested Mercy over Judgment, and I gave someone a dollar that I’m pretty sure went for booze. Who can say all “my purchases are wise”? Then my kid yells at me for enabling. Oh, well.

      There is no single right thing to do. The wrong thing to do is to fail to see the divine spark in each person who asks us for help. What we do about that vision of the divine is up to us.

      p.s. – I am very fond of you, too.

      1. I think, on the whole, God probably approves of the mercy. Otherwise why tell us the rule about gleanings?

        Another time I was walking along outside a fast food place with a soda I’d gotten for free but didn’t really want, so after a few sips I decided to toss it out. A young ragged man was digging through the nearest trash can. So I said “Hey, I don’t want this orange soda, do you?” And he smiled and said “Yes, thank you!” and began happily slurping through the straw. “People usually just dump stuff here right in front of me.” Now I’m as good at pretending not to see or hear people asking for money as the next person, but that the man would be standing there and others would toss their unwanted food into the trash rather than ask him if he was interested was something else.

        I’ve also given cash to people with extra-clever cardboard signs. The guy sitting quietly and not getting in anyone’s face who had a sign that said “NEED FUEL FOR MY LEARJET” got a dollar from everyone in our party. He gave us a laugh, we paid him for it.

        “So a nun, a rabbi and a homeless guy walk into McDonald’s…”

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