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When you reap the harvest of your land, do not gather in all that grows in the corner of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger – I am the L-rd your G-d…(23:22).
This commandment is remarkable in that it is placed in an entirely different context - within the section concerning the Festival – and specifically within that part which refers to the Festival of Shavuot (Pentecost). What is the connection between the mandatory gifts from the landowner to the poor, and Shavuot?
Indeed, elsewhere the Torah links Shavuot with taking care of those in need:
You shall observe the Festival of Shavuot… you shall rejoice before the L-rd your G-d – you, your son, your daughter, your slave, your maidservant, the Levite who is in your cities, the proselyte, the orphan, and the widow who is amongst you… You shall remember that you were slaves in Egypt, so you shall observe and perform these statutes (Deut. 16:10-12).
The Midrash (Tanchuma: Re-ay 18) highlights the above listing by the Torah of the eight categories of people that an Israelite must include in his own festivities. Four of them are needy (the Levite, the proselyte, the orphan, and the widow) – and four are members of the person’s own household (son, daughter, servant, and maidservant). G-d says, “Your four (your household) correspond to My four (the poor). If you will make My four happy, I will make your four happy.”
The Festival of Shavuot has several names. The Torah uses Chag Hashavuot and Yom Habikurim. The Amidah and Kiddush, following the Talmudic debate, call it Z’man Matan Torateinu – the time the Torah was given. Indeed this is the base of today’s custom of staying up on Shavuot night to learn Torah. None of Shavuot’s names however refer to Tzedaka – attending to the needs of the less fortunate.
Why is there a strong emphasis on Tzedaka on Shavuot only? And why is the theme of Tzedaka not represented on any of the mastheads of Shavuot? And finally, why does Torah substantiate the Mitzva of Tzadaka on Shavuot with a reminder of the Israelites’ once universally low status – ‘You shall remember that you were slaves in Egypt’?
The Midrash (Sifra 13:12) states that the topics of Shavuot and gifts to the poor are put together to teach us that whoever observes the laws of giving to the poor is regarded as if he himself had built the Temple and offered the festive Temple sacrifices. This links these two themes: Shavuot’s falling in the late Spring does put it in the natural period of the opening of the main harvest season. However, it does not cover the requirement to help those in need outside the context of the actual harvest.
One approach may be found by considering the situation of Shavuot vis-a-vis other Festivals.
Pesach and Sukkot both involve elaborate preparations – long in advance. They also last for week – not just a single day. Today (and very likely since Biblical times) families get together on Pesach and Sukkot. Those who do not have families or are away from home - such as students, soldiers, or travelers, will find themselves invited to celebrate those festivals with local families. Indeed, many would not be able to enjoy those festivals to the full without guests at the Seder or in the Sukkah. In other words, the very structures of Pesach and Sukkot festivities are such that the needy tend to be for.
However, Shavuot can be a time where a single person away from home can feel very lonely. For those settled in families, Shavuot is short and sweet – less likely to be an elaborate gathering with guests. Celebrations will tend to center around the nuclear, rather than the extended family. Thus, it will be easier to overlook the outside, but needy person.
That is not the way the single, lonely, and less fortunate person will see things. Shavuot is a festival – with its attendant laws and customs – and those demand company. And he or she may well find that, having being left out, it is a period of grief…
That could be one of the many reasons why the Torah emphasizes showing care towards the needy – whether those needs are financial or social. Such is the anatomy of the festival that it is the one where the requirements of the less fortunate are most likely to be overlooked. Thus the Torah reminds that, “You were slaves in Egypt” – remember that you were also once very much in need, and I remembered you. Now go and remember others…”
However human nature is such that people do not like to be patronized. Were Shavuot to be called, ‘The Festivals of Gifts to the Poor’ or the ‘Festival of Charity’ people would hate to be invited or receive gifts. It is bad enough to be needy without any such reminders!
Thus Tzedaka is in the background of Shavuot, but not on the masthead. Let those in need feel that they are sharers in the festivities, rather than beggars.
As a footnote – the more recent custom of staying up all night to learn Torah becomes all the greater after having attended to the material and social needs of the less fortunate. In that context, consider the following point made by the Talmud:
"You shall love the L-rd your G-d" (Deut 6:5)., means you shall cause the Heavenly Name to be loved by others, through your actions. When a man has learnt the written and oral Torah and followed the ways of Torah scholars, and then speaks in a pleasant manner, and conducts his personal and business affairs honestly and faithfully, what will people say about him? "Fortunate indeed is this man who has learnt Torah! Fortunate is his father who taught him Torah! Fortunate is his teacher who taught him Torah!" (Yoma 86a)
In other words, the act of loving G-d is performed by common decency and respect for the feelings and rights of others. Such behavior from those who learn Torah – (whether on Shavuot night or any other time), cause others to respect the Torah though positive feelings towards those who learn it. In contrast, acting as though the Torah is a rich man’s exclusive province brings the Torah into disrepute. So under the heading of ‘loving G-d’ by practicing common decency, come the laws requiring the landowner to leave a small part of his crops for those less fortunate than himself. And also, it may be said, are the injunctions to remember the social and economic needs of destitute and lonely people – emphatically on the unique Festival of Shavuot.