The Torah in Parashat Kedoshim introduces several commands regarding portions of the harvest that must be left for the poor (19:9-10). These include pei’a – a corner of one’s field which must be left unharvested; leket – sheaves of grain that fall during the harvest; olelot – abnormally shaped clusters of grapes; and peret – grapes that fall during the harvest.
The Mishna in Masekhet Pei’a (8:1) discusses the points at which leket, the produce that is dropped during harvesting, becomes permissible for all people, and not only for the poor. For most types of produce, the Mishna rules, the dropped sheaves become permissible to all people once the “nemushot” – the frail, elderly paupers – leave the field with their collected sheaves. Naturally, the nemushot were the last ones among the poor to arrive at the fields to collect the dropped sheaves, and thus once they leave, the process of the poor’s collection is deemed complete, such that the remaining stalks may be taken by anybody. The exceptions are vineyards and olive groves. The portions of vineyards allotted for the poor (peret and olelot) become available for all people after the poor make their second trip through the vineyard, and the portions of olive groves may be taken by all after the second autumn rainfall.
The Talmud Yerushalmi raises the question of why Halakha draws this distinction. The rule of nemushot – that the poor’s collection is considered complete once the slow, frail paupers finish collecting – seems to be the most reasonable end point at which the leket process can be said to have concluded. Why, then, does it not apply to all harvests, including those of vineyards and olive orchards? The Yerushalmi explains that due to the special importance of grapes, even the nemushot, despite their frailty, would exert themselves and show up together with the younger, stronger paupers to collect the peret and olelot. And as for the olive harvest, olives – as opposed to other forms of produce – are harvested in the autumn, after the weather has already turned cold, and so the elderly did not generally go out to collect the leket of olives, in order to protect their health.
Rav Yehuda Leib Ginsburg, in his Musar Ha-mishna, suggests drawing a practical lesson from the Yerushalmi’s discussion. Sometimes we feel like “nemushot” – frail and fatigued, and we thus seek to excuse ourselves from working hard to accomplish and achieve. The Yerushalmi’s discussion shows that when it comes to especially valuable assets, even the “nemushot” find the energy and rigor to do what is necessary to obtain the commodity. The lesson being conveyed is that very often, when we feel the need to excuse ourselves from religious achievement due to our fatigue, we can muster the energy needed to do the work once we recognize its great value and importance. Like the nemushot at the time of the grape harvest, we can often overcome lethargy if we have our priorities in order and truly appreciate the central importance of Torah and mitzvot. Certainly, as in the case of the olive harvest, there are times when we need to excuse ourselves for the sake of our physical wellbeing. On other occasions, however, we simply feel listless, a feeling we can and should try to overcome by reminding ourselves of the importance and value of that from which we seek to excuse ourselves.