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Hesed and the Jewish Way of Life Toward the Poor, the Widow, and the Stranger

Megillat Ruth, together with the laws of leket, pe’ah and geulah, are all generalized categorized as forms of hesed, free will giving out of love. Yet in fact there is an interesting tension between these laws for helping the other and voluntarily given hesed
Noam Zion is a Senior Fellow Emeritus of the Kogod Research Center at the Shalom Hartman Institute since 1978. He studied philosophy and holds degrees from Columbia University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He studied bible and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the Hartman Beit Midrash. In the past, he led the Tichon program for North American Jewish educators and he teaches in Hartman Institute rabbinic programs: the Be’eri program

Megillat Ruth, together with the laws of leket, pe’ah and geulah, are all generalized categorized as forms of hesed, free will giving out of love. Yet in fact there is an interesting tension between these laws for helping the other and voluntarily given hesed.
Pe’ah, leket are both rights of the poor, not handouts as acts of hesed by the land owner. The Mishna makes it clear that the owner may not even distribute the produce or control the harvesting process. Moshe Alscheich comments that pe’ah is derech kavod – the honorable way "to earn" one’s portion of the field owned, planted and brought to harvest by another.
Theologically the rabbis suggested that God had allotted the poor person’s portion through the owner, to give the owner a religious zechut in being a conduit to help the poor. That is Rabbi Akiva’s view. Yet, legally speaking, the owner has no real part in deciding to give or not. The owner is obligated, though the amount depends on the owner. Still, Leviticus 19 calls this an act of love for the stranger, even if legally mandated.
What the poor do receive is only a side portion, a corner, leftovers that have fallen or been forgotten. This is not enough for rehabilitation or independence but for subsistence during the harvest. It does include – at least according to the Torah – the ethnic foreigner – the ger toshav, the resident alien, as well as widow and orphan and landless Levi. The poor remain poor, and the owner remains an owner.
Goel is the system of Leviticus 25 that helps rehabilitate a brother Jew who has lost or sold off property and body (slavery). Here there is an obligation mediated through family connections, unlike leket and p’eah. It does not include the non-Jewish stranger, again unlike leket and pe’ah. Goel for land is parallel to goel for yibum, according to Megillat Ruth. Both solve the problem by virtue of a law obligating next of kin. This is not hesed, but a mutual obligation among Jews in a family who serve as guarantors to one another, a safety net, and an insurance policy.
Hesed is classically a free will gift without expectation of return and even without obligation. It is l’fnim mishurat ha’din. The paradigmatic hesed is hesed shel emet to the dead, because they cannot reciprocate. Boaz compliments Ruth for that hesed to the dead. Help given to the ger is also hesed because of that alien’s absolute vulnerability: no one to help or to defend them since they lack a network of goel, of family connections and obligations. That is why ahavat ha’ger is central.
Ruth is interwoven with hesed in three senses:
She is a foreigner not obligated to Jewish law or Jewish family;
She acts without any regard for self-interest and in fact does so explicitly disregarding self-interest (as when she gives up prospects of further marriage when she follows Naomi);
She is a foreigner who arouses hesed from people of Judah, whose legal and ethnic duties to her seem ambiguous. In fact Jews are commanded in Deuteronomy not to care for Moabites.
Still, the gap between law and hesed is not as absolute as might appear. First, the Torah as book of hesed commends laws obligating concern for yibum and goel and pe’ah because God models hesed. Hesed is the motivating narrative behind the law.  
Second, many people in Bethlehem and thereafter do not live up to their duties – like Ploni Almoni. So, when one does decide to do one’s duty, it can be seen as a voluntary act in some way, because there are no legal sanctions against non-compliance. Ruth’s hesed inspires others to live up the legal and social and moral demands.
Background for Ruth: Laws of pe’ah and gleanings
Ruth is in some sense a prime example of all three categories of poor with a right to glean: she is widow, she is stranger, and she is metaphorically an orphan whom Boaz notes has left her father and mother to join Israel (Ruth 2:11).
Let us study these laws in Leviticus 19:9-10, 33-34, and 23:22; Deuteronomy 24:19, and Ruth 2:7, 16, and examine how the poor, widow and stranger get financial support in Biblical Israel.
Leviticus 19:9-10
When you reap your land’s harvest, do not completely harvest the ends of your fields . [Also] do not pick up individual stalks [that have fallen]
[Furthermore,] do not pick the incompletely formed grape clusters in your vineyards. [Also] do not pick up individual [fallen grapes] in your vineyards. [ All the above ] must be left for the poor and the stranger . I am God your Lord.
Leviticus 19:33-34
When a proselyte comes to live in your land, do not hurt his feelings. The foreigner who becomes a proselyte must be exactly like one who is native born among you. You shall love him as [you love] yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am God your Lord.
Deuteronomy 24:19
When you reap your grain harvest and forget a sheaf in the field, you must not go back to get it. It must be left for the foreigner, orphan and widow, so that God your Lord will bless you, no matter what you do.
Questions for study and teaching
Who is included as recipients according to these social welfare laws? What do the categories – widow/stranger/orphan/poor/Levi have in common? Which of these categories apply to Ruth? To Naomi?
(Note that ancient Mesopotamian law 4,000 years ago includes a tablet guide for the farmer, including a warning to leave grains for the workers and for the poor, widows, orphans and war refugees. See Olam HaTanakh on Ruth, p. 75)
What does leket refer to and how is it different than pe’ah or shichecha or ma’aser ani?
What does the word pe’ah mean?
  • Corner/edge/side
  • Facial hair on side of face (side locks)
  • Modern Hebrew – a women’s wig
Why should the pe’ah be left in the corner of field, and why shouldn’t the owner of the field simply distribute the produce directly after the harvest as with ma’aser, the tithe?
How is the private giving of one’s produce to the poor better or worse than government taxation and central distribution through social welfare agencies?
How does the recollection of the Exodus (Exodus 22:20 and 23:9; Deuteronomy 10:19) connect to the distributions to the poor? Does your experience show that when you have suffered, for example as new student in a class, that you have treated others more sensitively?
How does Boaz’s instructions (Ruth 2:15-16) to his workers go beyond the letter of the law? 
15. Boaz commanded his young men, saying,
Let her glean even among the sheaves, and reproach her not;
16. And let fall also some of the handfuls on purpose for her, and leave them that she may glean them, and do not rebuke her.
17. So she gleaned in the field until the evening,
and she beat out what she had gleaned;
and it was about an ephah of barley.
How is the negative commandment not to exploit or persecute the stranger related to the positive command to help them financially? Can one “love the stranger” yet exploit them? Is it important or realistic to teach Jews to love strangers or simply not to take advantage of them?
What contemporary forms of exploitation of foreign workers or of the poor? Compare to Deuteronomy 24:15: 
15. At his day you shall give him his hire, nor shall the sun go down upon it; for he is poor, and sets his heart upon it; lest he cry against you to the Lord, and it should be sin to you.
What does that verse tell us about the emotional feelings of the poor?
Mishna Pe’ah 1:2
Mishnah 1. The following are the things for which no definite quantity is prescribed: The corners [of the field]. First-fruits, [the offerings brought] on appearing [before the lord at the three pilgrim festivals]. The practice of lovingkindness, and the study of the Torah. The following are the things for which a man enjoys the fruits in this world while the principal remains for him in the world to come: the honoring of father and mother, the practice of charity, and the making of peace between a man and his friend; but the study of the torah is equal to them all.
Mishnah 2. One should not make the amount of pe’ah less than one-sixtieth [of the entire crop]. But although no definite amount is given for pe’ah, yet everything depends upon the size of the field, the number of poor men, and the extent of the standing crop.
Questions: In your judgment why do these good acts have no stipulated minimum or maximum? Should they have either? What should it be?
Immediately after its opening the Mishna does specify a minimum on pe’ah – 1/60th of the field. Why present two different instructions on limits? Perhaps the Mishna established an ideal of giving without legal definition according to one’s heart and then afterwards felt that those less idealistic needed a minimum requirement. Maybe they were afraid people would only give the minimum if the minimum was listed first.
What does the final part of the Mishna add to our understanding of this mitzvah and its imprecise definition?
Should there also be definition of the poverty line for those who should not be allowed to take welfare? The Mishna suggests a poverty line of 200 dinar equivalent to the total of all food and clothing expenses for a year.
What forms of contemporary social welfare replace the laws of agricultural support for the poor and the aliens? What are the advantages/disadvantages of these new forms? For example, compare Deuteronomy 16:13 to Israeli wedding halls or newlyweds who give away leftovers to soup kitchens?

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