Shavuot and the Mitzva of Charity

  • Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein

 

Upon reading the 23rd chapter of Vayikra, which contains a highly ordered presentation of the yearly cycle of the chagim (festivals), one is struck by a verse that appears strangely out of place: "And as you harvest the harvest of the your land, do not eliminate the edge of the field and the leftover gatherings do not gather, to the poor and migrant leave them, I am Hashem your God" (v. 22). Though helping the poor is undoubtedly an important mitzva and gemilut chasadim is one of the three pillars of the universe, its appearance in the midst of the halakhot of the holidays is perplexing. What is the connection between this mitzva and the mitzva to commemorate the festivals? Is it possible that there is a link between these two seemingly unconnected ideas, or is their juxtaposition side by side merely coincidental?

 

Moreover, there is an additional problem regarding the inclusion of this verse in Vayikra 23, since an almost identical formulation of these very same mitzvot that mandate the granting of agricultural leftovers to the poor previously appeared in the Torah (only four chapters earlier), and there would seem to be no need to repeat a mitzva that we are already familiar with. Therefore, it is not only the context of our verse that is the issue, but also its seeming redundancy, a problem that is no less perplexing than the former.

 

Upon further reflection, we are led to the realization that the answer to these questions is implicit in the questions themselves. The inescapable conclusion is that there is an essential connection between the chagim and tzedaka (charity) that justifies the inclusion of tzedaka within the framework of the festivals. Rather than viewing the tzedaka verse as an insertion that interrupts the flow of the narrative, it must be perceived that the idea of charity is intrinsically related to our celebration of the holidays. In the following paragraphs, we shall attempt to analyze and elucidate the connection between these two mitzvot.

 

SHAVUOT IN THE TORAH

 

Although Shavuot is popularly associated with the celebration of Matan Torah (a motif finding its main halakhic expression in the prayers of the day), its focal point is not the historical event, as the section of the Torah that we are dealing with makes quite clear. Nowhere does the Torah associate Shavuot with Matan Torah (or with any other historical event), nor does the Torah even relate to us the exact date of Matan Torah - evidently not deeming its commemoration to be of significant occasion. Indeed, the date that is halakhically accepted by many as the date of Matan Torah is the seventh and not the sixth day of Sivan, although the sixth is the date on which we celebrate Shavuot [1]. Nowhere throughout the Gemara's long discussion regarding the exact date of Matan Torah - whether it was on the sixth or the seventh of Sivan – is any attempt made to prove the point from the date of Shavuot. Of course, such an endeavor would have been impossible, for there is no date in the Torah for Shavuot! Rather, the Torah merely designates that Shavuot be observed on the fiftieth day of the Omer, an instruction that does not necessarily translate into a fixed date (due to the fluctuations of the calendar when it was dependent upon the actual observation of the new moon, rather than being astronomically calculated as we do nowadays). As the Gemara in Rosh Ha-shana (6b) was quick to observe: "Shavuot is sometimes on the fifth, sometimes on the sixth, sometimes on the seventh [of Sivan]." The upshot of all of these calendar calculations is that Shavuot is essentially independent of Matan Torah and its essence must be sought elsewhere, outside of the historical arena.

 

If it is not Matan Torah and the historical Shavuot that are the motivating factor of the holiday, the alternative that presents itself is the agricultural factor - Shavuot celebrates the bounty of the harvest and is therefore known as Chag Ha-bikkurim (festival of the first fruits). The holiday's essence is expressed and realized by the Shtei Ha-lechem (two loaves) offering from the new wheat that is brought to the Beit Ha-mikdash on Shavuot morning. The Ramban (Vayikra 23:15) points out that the Torah does not tell us to bring the Shtei Ha-lechem on Shavuot; rather, it states that on the day that the Shtei Ha-lechem are brought, the holiday of Shavuot should be proclaimed: "And you shall proclaim on this very day [in which the korban was brought] a holy day..." (Vayikra 23:21). This is due to the fact, explains the Ramban, that the festival itself is generated by the first fruits of the Shtei Ha-lechem, whose role is not that of a sacrifice brought on a holiday, but rather the raison d'etre of the entire chag. Therefore, the Shtei Ha-lechem, unlike other holiday offerings, appear in Vayikra (where the Torah is concerned with establishing the basic system of the chagim) and are not relegated to the section of the Torah in Bamidbar (ch. 28-9) that details the various sacrifices that are offered on the holidays. It is around this korban and the theme of the harvest that the holiday of Shavuot revolves.

 

The idea of bikkurim expresses gratitude to God for the bounty that He has granted us, brought about by our recognition during harvest time that He has granted us our sustenance. The Torah elaborates upon this point in its treatment of the bikkurim that the individual brings to the Mikdash from his personal harvest (Devarim 26:1-11), and it is this same sense of dependence and gratitude that is celebrated by the entire nation on Shavuot. The Ramban emphasizes the element of thanksgiving in the Shtei Ha-lechem, claiming (based upon their similarities) that it is a form of Todah (thanksgiving) offering: "The Torah ordered that [the Shtei Ha-lechem] should be chametz, since they are a thanksgiving to God that He has provided the harvest cycle to us, and a thanksgiving offering is brought from chametz."

 

Thus, Shavuot has an agricultural rather than a historical focus, and the controlling principle that sets the chag in motion is the concept of gratitude to He who has provided for us. Therefore Shavuot is grouped together with Sukkot and not with Pesach. A brief look at a verse or two in Shemot will suffice to demonstrate these relationships: "The Feast of Matzot you shall observe, seven days eat matza as you were instructed on the occasion of the spring month, in it you left Egypt … and the Feast of the Harvest, the first fruit of what you have planted in the field, and the Feast of Gathering at year's end when you are gathering your produce from the field." Although Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot are all mentioned in the context of the seasons and the yearly cycle, there is a clear distinction between Pesach and the other two chagim. Regarding Pesach, springtime is not mentioned as the reason for the festival but simply as the date when Israel left Egypt, while Shavuot and Sukkot are described as feasts of the harvest [2].

 

TWO ASPECTS OF TZEDAKA

 

Having discussed the concept of Shavuot as it appears in the Torah, it is now time to turn our attention to tzedaka, the mitzva that accompanies Shavuot in Vayikra 23. Of special interest in the Torah's treatment of tzedaka is the attention that it pays to the mindset of the giver. Not only is tzedaka a mitzva to provide for the needy, it is also directed at the moral state of the provider.

 

When there shall be a pauper from amongst your brethren in one of your dwelling places in the land that Hashem your God gives you, do not harden your heart and do not close your fist from your poor brother. For you shall generously open your hand to him and provide him with all of his missing needs… You shall give to him and your heart should not be upset, for due to this you will be blessed by Hashem your God… (Devarim 15:7-8, 10)

 

Aside from the principle of providing for all of the pauper's needs, the Torah also addressitto us and warns us neither to harden our hearts and close our fists to the poor person nor to fret over money that is given. The Rambam was quite aware of this and emphasized this element in his writings. In his list of mitzvot (Sefer Ha-mitzvot, prohibition #232), the Rambam explicitly states that the negative command is a moral imperative that relates to the giver and his moral attributes: "This is an imperative to prevent us from the traits of miserliness and cruelty." A careful reading of his statements in Mishneh Torah seems to indicate that the Rambam, following in the footsteps of the Torah, drew a distinction between the positive commandment of tzedaka that is receiver-oriented and the negative command that is giver-focused. The text is as follows:

 

It is a positive commandment to give charity to the poor according to the poor man's needs, if the giver has the ability, as is said, "You shall open your hand to him," and it is said, "You shall support the settler and the dweller," and it is said, "Your brother shall live with you." Anyone who sees a poor man requesting tzedaka and turns his eyes away from him and does not give him tzedaka has violated a negative commandment, as is said, "Do not harden your heart and do not close your fist from your needy brother." (Hilkhot Matnot Aniyim 7:1-2)

 

Regarding the positive command, the Rambam determines that one must give to the poor to supply their needs, without specifying any restrictions as to who is entitled to support; the negative command, however, is limited to a person who sees a pauper begging for money and doesn't assist him. However, if one is aware that there are needy people in distant places but they do not actually appear to request aid, there is no transgression of the negative mitzva, although he remains in violation of the positive mitzva. The reason for this is that the positive mitzva is directed at the needs of the poor person and is an expression of the obligation to provide for these needs. So long as the needs are real and the resources exist to supply them, there is no difference whether there is physical contact or not. The negative commandment, though, relates to the indifference and apathy of those who refuse to help a fellow human being; in this regard, there is a difference between abstract theoretical knowledge and encountering an actual person of flesh and blood with real needs. While a sensitive person is quite able to perceive the needs of those who are not present and to imaginatively empathize with them, the inability to do so is not indifference but insensitivity. The apathy and hardness of heart that the Torah prohibits exist only when we remain unconcerned and uninterested in the face of need.

 

The dual elements of concern for the actual needs of the destitute and the moral state of the giver are reflected in many other halakhot of tzedaka, but space does not permit us to discuss them here. It should at least be mentioned, though, that one of the main areas in which this distinction plays a major role is the extensive discussion of Talmudic commentators and Halakhists regarding the use of coercion to collect tzedaka.

 

TZEDAKA AS A MITZVA BETWEEN MAN AND GOD

 

Having established that the mitzva of tzedaka is concerned with the bestower as well as the receiver, let us examine an additional element of tzedaka. Not only is it a mitzva pertaining to the relationships between human beings (bein adam le-chaveiro) or within the human soul, it also participates in the man–God relationship (bein adam la-Makom). By giving tzedaka, man fulfils an obligation and establishes a relationship with God as well as with his fellow human.

 

This idea is expressed in a series of statements that appear in the Gemara on this topic (Bava Batra 10a).

 

…One who gives a penny to a poor person is privileged to appear before the Shekhina, as is said, "I will see you with tzedek" [lit. justice, but the Gemara is punning on the connection that the Hebrew language implies between tzedek and tzedaka] …R. Elazar would give a penny to a poor person and afterwards would pray. It is written, he stated, that "I shall appear before you with tzedek…" R. Yochanan said: The statement that "He who grants to a pauper loans to God" could never have been uttered by us if it weren't written in the Tanakh [since it implies that God is in debt to us], as the receiver of a loan is indebted to the lender as a slave to a master.

 

Two points are emphasized in this passage: the ability to approach God by means of tzedaka and the favor that man supposedly does to God by supporting the destitute. As the Gemara noted, the second claim is quite radical and requires explanation. How indeed can man loan to God, and what is the significance of such a mechanism?

 

Man, entering into the world as a helpless pitiful creature, amasses a huge debt of gratitude to those who supply his needs. He is indebted to his parents for feeding, diapering, sheltering and supporting him, to society for providing security, to his teachers for knowledge and, foremost, to God for his existence. Man repays this debt and does not remain ungrateful by acting in two ways. First, he recognizes and acknowledges his debt by expressing thankfulness to those who have helped him. He thanks his parents and teachers by articulating the sense of gratitude that he feels within, and verbally acknowledges the institutions of society that provided for his needs. The same principle guides his relationship to God; an essential part of man's posture towards God is acknowledgement of his dependence. This idea, a basic tenet of Judaism, was strongly emphasized by Rabeinu Bachye in his classic work Chovot Ha-levavot, who made it into the cornerstone of his entire religious system, as well as by the Ramban, from whose commentary the following passage is quoted (Shemot 13:16):

 

The goal of all the mitzvot is that we should believe in our God and acknowledge to Him that He created us, for this is the final end of creation, as we have no other reason for original creation, and God who is supreme and transcendent has no other desire from the material world except that man should recognize and acknowledge his God who created him. For this is the purpose of synagogues and the merit of communal prayer, that there should be a place for people to gather and acknowledge God who created them and to make known this fact and proclaim to Him that they are His creatures.

 

The second element that enables man to repay his debt is rooted in the world of action rather than in the abstract sphere of verbal expression, requiring man to engage in acts of giving to others. The child doesn't necessarily repay his parents by reciprocating them with food, shelter, clothing, etc., but by providing for the next generation. By diapering and feeding their baby, the young couple repays their parents, and by teaching the next generation of students, the talmid discharges the debt he owes his rebbe. Had they not provided for the next generation, they indeed would have been guilty of ingratitude, since their actions would reveal that taking care of the young and weak is not a responsibility but a favor; however, by shouldering this responsibility, they indicate that they are not seeking to receive without giving, and that they are deserving of what they received since they are willing to give as well. Simply put, he who gives has the right to receive, and he who receives justifies this by giving to others. Thus, the child grows up and raises his own child, the student becomes a teacher and teaches his students, the civilian serves in the military or volunteers in a hospital, and so on.

 

The same holds true in regard to our relationship with God. We must not only praise and thank Him, but must also engage in actions that morally justify our receiving God's bounty. The vehicle through which this is achieved is tzedaka. A Chasidic story that I heard from my rebbe, Rav Amital, will help us illustrate this point. It is told of a well-to-do chasid that he would annually visit his rebbe to receive a blessing that his business should be successful. The rebbe would give the ber, the chwould go home and the business prospered. Thus the routine continued year after year and all were satisfied. One year, though, the chasid came and was told that the rebbe was out of town. Upon inquiring, he was told that the rebbe had gone to visit his own rebbe. Having discovered that his rebbe uses the services of a different rebbe, the chasid decided that he, too, should start going to the other rebbe. After all, the other rebbe must be the greater of the two, for his own rebbe himself recognizes and accepts him as a rebbe. Thereafter, he switched his allegiance and began visiting the new rebbe, figuring that if a minor league rebbe did him such great good, then obviously his business will grow and expand by leaps and bounds when a major league rebbe will bestow upon him his blessings.

 

Of course, the opposite happened. From the moment that he switched to the new mentor, his finances deteriorated, his losses multiplied and he lost more and more customers. No matter how much he went to the famous rebbe, things only got worse. Finally, on the verge of bankruptcy, he went back to his original rebbe out of despair and asked him: "Why is it when I used to visit you, I prospered, yet now that I follow your rebbe, who is admittedly greater, my situation has worsened rather than improved?" The rebbe answered him: "As long as you innocently and indiscriminately went to a local rebbe and did not attempt to rate his greatness, God also gave to you indiscriminately. However, the moment that you began to discriminate in selecting a rebbe, God also applied the same standard to you; He, too, found better candidates to give to."

 

It is exactly this idea that expresses itself in tzedaka. If a person is willing to give indiscriminately to others regardless of whether they are deserving or not, if he reacts to need by extending a helping hand, if he doesn't enter into any calculations when approached by a broken soul, he justifies the fact that he, too, receives from God. However, if a person declines to help a destitute person, justifying his refusal by blaming the needy for their predicament and thrusting upon them the burden of self-reliance, he delegitimizes the bounty that God gave him. For no matter how unworthy a particular person may be in relation to other members of society, the disparity that exists between God and man is infinitely greater. If receiving assistance is predicated upon worthiness, then no human is entitled to the support that God gives us. Only by recognizing the obligation to give indiscriminately can we morally and religiously justify our expectation to be supported by God.

 

It is this idea of providing for others in a similar manner to the support we receive that is meant by the Gemara in its statement that giving to the poor is a loan to God. If a person passes on his wealth to others, his willingness to do so proves that he is not ungrateful to God and that he does not treat his wealth as a private privilege but rather as a resource that must be shared with others; in this sense, he is handing over his money to God who channels it to other needy people. This is the basis of the claim that, in a sense, he is lending to the Master of the Universe by engaging, in a Godlike manner, in granting livelihood to other inhabitants of the world. Yet the real significance of this munificence is the recognition and acknowledgement of his debt to God, which obligates him to support others as he was provided for. He received from the Master of the Universe and he lends back to the universe; thus, he has entered with God into a relationship of acknowledgement that is reflected in the circumstances of receiving from God and bestowing upon His creatures, and he has thus escaped from a posture of ingratitude to his Creator.

 

Therefore, a person who gives tzedaka is privileged to appear before God, since he has recognized and acknowledged God and approaches Him out of a sense of gratitude and thankfulness. It is for this very same reason that R. Elazar would give tzedaka prior to davening. By demonstrating his willingness to help others generously and by acknowledging the need to help the weak, man creates a context that will enable him to approach God with a series of requests for his own needs.

 

Thus, tzedaka is not only an obligation to provide for the weak members of society and an imperative to prevent cruelty and miserliness, but also an important element in our relationship with God.

 

GRATITUDE

 

Having arrived at this point, we can now return to our starting point regarding the connection between tzedaka and Shavuot. The basic motif of Shavuot, as was demonstrated above, is gratitude to God for the harvest and, as such, it must be marked by the expression of our gratitude to God for His bounty. This, as was explained above, requires a dual track. On the one hand, the obligation of gratitude is discharged through the recognition and articulation of our debt. This is achieved on Shavuot through the medium of the Shtei Ha-lechem offering (which functions as a thanksgiving offering) and, subsequently, throughout the entire summer by the bringing of various first fruits to the Mikdash and the recitation of the text from the Torah (Devarim 26: 1-11) that expresses our thankfulness. On the other hand, though, there is a need to acknowledge our debt to God and to make ourselves worthy of His benevolence by being liberal and generous towards others, as He is to us. It is through tzedaka that this goal is achieved.

 

Therefore, the Torah emphasizes tzedaka in the midst of the section dealing with Shavuot, although it has already mentioned the very same mitzva a few chapters earlier. There (Vayikra 19), it appeared in the context of mitzvot dealing with the relationships in society between the strong and the weak, and it is flanked by mitzvot of a similar nature; here (Vayikra 23), the mitzva of tzedaka is repeated and positioned within the Shavuot narrative as an integral part of the observance of the holiday. The same paradigm repeats itself in the Torah's treatment of Shavuot (and Sukkot) in Devarim. There, too, the Torah integrates the mitzva of tzedaka into its treatment of the festival and emphasizes the need to provide for the poor in festive times (see Devarim 16:9-17, Rashi 16:11, and the Rambam in Hilkhot Yom Tov 6:18). As in Vayikra, the Torah's directives regarding tzedaka in the context of the festivals are due not only to sensitivity towards the weak members of society but are also an expression of the inherent connection between tzedaka and the chagim.

 

The connection between tzedaka and Shavuot is further expressed in the story of Ruth (read on Shavuot morning), for it is not only the drama of her conversion but also the motif of Gemilut Chasadim that lies at the heart of the megilla – as the Midrash already pointed out – and that associates it with the feast of Shavuot.

 

LEKET AND PE'AH

 

In this regard, a final point is worthy of notice. Throughout our discussion, we have treated tzedaka generically and have dwelled upon the connection between tzedaka and Shavuot without attempting to differentiate between various forms of tzedaka, as the basic principle is applicable to all forms of help to the poor. Nevertheless, it is not coincidental that the Torah singled out a particular form of tzedaka - agricultural leftovers - as being intrinsically related to Shavuot. The reasons for this are twofold. The first and most obvious reason is the agricultural element that is the underlying cause of Shavuot and is therefore the most appropriate form of tzedaka to associate with the Feast of the Harvest.

 

There is, though, an additional rationale to the choice of these specific mitzvot. Unlike the classic case of tzedaka, in which the poor man's needs are indeed provided for, the mitzvot of pe'ah (leaving uncut the edge of the field) and leket (leaving in the field the grain that falls to the ground during the harvest) cannot be conceived as designed to support the needy, since they do not provide trustworthy resources that the poor can rely upon. Pe'ah has no minimal requirement; even the most miniscule amount suffto dischthe Biblical obligation, so that it is obviously impossible for the poverty-stricken to look to pe'ah as a source of meaningful income. If this is the case with pe'ah, it is doubly true regarding leket, which is of a totally haphazard nature. After all, if the reapers were careful and did not drop anything, there is no leket at all [3]. The necessary inference that must be deduced from these considerations is that these mitzvot are not intended to provide for the needs of the poor – for that there is the mitzva of tzedaka that directs us to supply the destitute with all their needs – but rather are aimed at the moral and religious state of the field's owner. In other words, the elements of tzedaka that are expressed in pe'ah and leket are exactly those that contribute to our observance of Shavuot. Therefore, the Torah chose to highlight these particular manifestations of tzedaka as being associated with Shavuot.

 

FOOTNOTES

 

[1] See Shabbat 86b-88a, Magen Avraham OC 494:1 and others. A brief summary of the various proposals appears in Rav S. Y. Zevin's Ha-mo'adim Ba-halakha in the section on Shavout.

 

[2] The same results are arrived at if one refers to Shemot 34:18,22 and Devarim 16:1, 10-17.

 

[3] Megillat Ruth itself makes it clear that Naomi placed no great hopes upon the expected results of the leket, and she certainly would have been right if not for Boaz's artificial manipulation of the leket mechanism.

 

 

(This is an abridged version of an article that will appear in the forthcoming Dinner Journal of the Torat Tzion Kollel in Cleveland.)

 

(c) Yeshivat Har Etzion1997 All rights reserved to Yeshivat Har Etzion