by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – May 6, 2010
In the beginning of the Torah section of Behar, we are told, “Six years you shall sow your field and six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in the fruit thereof. But the seventh year shall be a sabbath of rest for the land…you shall not sow your field nor prune your vineyard. That which grows of its own accord of your harvest you shall not reap nor gather the grapes of your undressed vine for it shall be a year of rest to the L-rd. And the sabbath of the land shall be food for you, for you and for your servant and for your maid and for your hired servant and for your stranger who sojourns with you. And for your cattle and for the beast in your land shall all the produce thereof be food” (Vayikra 25:3-7). And in the following Torah section of Bechukotai, we are warned against neglecting to abide by the aforementioned laws (Vayikra 26:34-35).
In addition to the above laws on leaving the land free for all to partake of, we find, throughout the Torah, numerous laws concerning the contribution of agricultural produce to the poor, to levi’im (levites) or to kohanim (priests), or bringing the produce to Jerusalem to be eaten there.
In Vayikra 19:9-10, we are advised, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not completely reap the corners of your field nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. And you shall not glean your vineyard nor shall you gather the single grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger.”
In Devarim 24:19, we read, “When you cut down your harvest in your field and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not return to fetch it; it shall be for the stranger, for the orphan and for the widow.”
In Devarim 18:4, “The first [1/50] of your corn, your wine and your oil…shall you give to him [viz. the kohen (priest)].” “And to the offspring of Levi, I have given every tenth in Israel for an inheritance” (Bamidbar 18:21). Then, after removing the first 1/50 of the field’s produce for the kohen, called terumah, and a tenth of what is left for the Levi, called ma’aser rishon, we are enjoined, “You shall tithe all the produce of your seed…And you shall eat [it] before the L-rd your G-d in the place where He shall choose to rest His name there” (Devarim 14:22-23), called ma’aser sheni, which is apportioned on the first, second, fourth and fifth years of each seven-year cycle, whereas on the third and sixth years, we apportion ma’aser ani (a tenth for the poor), and “When you have completed tithing all the tithes of your produce of the third year…and have given [it] to the levite and to the stranger, to the orphan and to the widow that they may eat in your gates and be filled. Then shall you say before the L-rd your G-d, ‘I have brought away the hallow from the house and also have given them to the levite, to the stranger, to the orphan and to the widow according to all your commandments which you have commanded me” (Devarim 26:12-13).
In Vayikra 19:23-24, we find, “And when you shall have planted all manner of trees for food, then you shall consider its fruit uncircumcised, three years shall it be uncircumcised to you, it shall not be eaten of. But in the fourth year, all the fruit hereof shall be holy to praise the L-rd.”
In Sh’mot 23:19, we are informed, “The first of the firstfruits of your land you shall bring to the house of the L-rd your G-d.”
In his Moreh Nevukhim 3:39, Maimonides points out: “When you examine these precepts, you will see…they teach us to have sympathy with the poor and infirm, to assist the needy in various ways…[and since] the levites had no portion [in the land], for their whole tribe was to be exclusively engaged in the service of G-d and the study of Torah,…the levite is reckoned among the poor. Ma’aser sheni was commanded to be spent on food in Jerusalem; in this way, the owner was compelled to give part of it away as charity. Since he was not able to use it otherwise than by way of eating and drinking, he must have easily been induced to give it gradually away. This…brought multitudes together in one place and strengthened the bond of love and brotherhood among people. The law concerning the fruit of a tree in its fourth year [serves to accustom one]…to be liberal and to limit his appetite for eating and his desire for property…The recitation of a certain portion of the Torah when the firstfruits are brought to the Temple tends also to create humility…for it is to be feared that those who become great in riches and comfort might, as is generally the case, fall into the vices of insolence and conceit…[and] the year of release [viz. the seventh year of each seven year cycle]…implies sympathy with our fellow man and promotes the well-being of mankind…and the land will also increase its produce and improve when it remains fallow for some time.”
And these laws concerning apportionment of agricultural produce are limited to the Land of Israel, the land which G-d so benevolently granted to us (Sh’mot 4:17); the land which, Nahmanides notes in his commentary on Vayikra 26:16, in all the years that the people of Israel were absent from it “proved inhospitable to all other nations or peoples…[and although they] attempted to establish permanent settlements there…[they] all have failed.” It is this land which G-d so magnanimously shared with us that we are enjoined to equally magnanimously share with others who may not be as fortunate as we.
May we only find the opportunity to all join together in the land which G-d promised to our forefathers, exercise His laws and follow His principles and thereby gain a life of spiritual pleasure in this world and everlasting spiritual bliss in the world to come.