Tzedakah: The Difference Between Leaving and Giving

Each week Rabbi Yoel Domb writes about issues of business ethics related to the Torah portion of the week.

Let us imagine for a moment that a successful business enterprise would decide to invest some of its wealth in various charities. The accountant will immediately screen the proposed recipients to ensure that the contribution is tax deductible; the public relations department will announce the donation in all the daily journals and prepare a gala event with proper press representation. The marketing department will be on hand to show the company’s latest products to all those who attend the formal presentation, while the CEO will use the occasion to inform shareholders that the company has doubled its profits and will outperform all analysts predictions.

Now let us imagine another company, similarly ambitious and successful, which wishes to give away excess food from its cafeteria to poor people. A small announcement is made, the kitchen staff are told to prepare excess food in special bags and the needy members of the town line up to receive a portion of food. No attempt is made to verify that recipients are needy, as it is assumed that this was their reason for taking food. The press is not invited to such a mundane event.

Both these actions qualify as Tzedaka (charity), yet the goals and means with which the companys dispense their charity are very different. Company A see their charity as an opportunity both to advertise their largesse and to attract public interest to their line of business, whereas Company B simply wants to ease the burden of the poor. Company Acarefully chooses its recipient while Company B designates its gifts for anyone who calls himself poor.

Essentially we can see the same distinction in the Torah’s description of Pe’ah and Tsedaka. Pe’ah is the biblical imperative which requires a farmer to “leave” the end of his field for poor people to gather. Similarly he must leave any produce which falls during harvesting. The farmer is forbidden to intervene in favor of one poor person and give him Pe’ah. Conversely, the mitsva of Tsedaka (charity) does not require a person to leave any set amount of charity. It is also subject to the discretion of the donor and his own personal preferences as to whom to give to.

In Parshat Emor the Torah states the mitsva of Pe’ah in the middle of its description of the festivals. Besides this strange juxtaposition, the whole command appears superfluous, as it was already outlined in the previous Parsha. Why does the Torah repeat it, and why particularly at this juncture?

Chazal (Torat Kohanim) state that “whoever gives Pe’ah to the poor is considered as if he had brought a sacrifice in the temple”. This analogy requires explanation and does not seem to answer the above questions. The Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Yehuda Leowi, explains that when a person brings a sacrifice he is declaring that his money belongs to G-d and he is simply G-d’s servant bringing His sacrifice as obligated. In the same way Pe’ah is a required present for the poor while harvesting.It does not constitute an act of “giving” since the farmer is merely doing G-d’s will by “leaving” the end of his field. Charity, however, is an innate human need that would be performed irrespective of a divine command. Thus a person dispensing charity is effectively fulfilling his own will as well as G-d’s (like company A who stand to benefit from their donations.), whereas a person who leaves the end of his field is subjugating his will to G-d’s wishes and declaring that the end of his field or the produce which falls at harvesting belongs to the poor. This form of charity is analogous to company B’s altruistic wish to give the poor all their leftover food.

Now we can begin to understand why the Torah stressed this Mitsva in conjunction with the festivals. The mitsva of Pe’ah is mentioned directly after Shavuot, when the first fruits of the harvest are brought and the concept of giving to G-d a “sacrifice” from one’s produce is initially stated. The Torah initially wished to transmit this mitsva in Parshat Kedoshim since it is an act of human kindness like all the socially sensitive mitsvot in Kedoshim, but it also wanted to highlight the unique aspect of “leaving” which distinguishes Pe’ah from regular charity as a selfless fulfillment of G-d’s will.

One halachic ramification of this concept is that when there is a doubt concerning the ownership of fallen produce it belongs to the poor and not to the owner of the field. In general, money of doubtful ownership requires proof to be taken away from the possessor. In this case technically the owner of the field possesses the fallen produce, but despite this the doubtful produce is given to the poor, since the Torah emphasized that he should “leave” the fallen produce i.e. he should make no claims on it.(Torat Kohanim,Kedoshim 19:9,Malbim ibid) In this way the halacha buttresses the rights of the poor and demonstrates that the owner can derive no benefit from “giving”. Instead he is “leaving” as the Torah requires, as this is the true sacrifice of charity.


Rabbi Yoel Domb is a graduate of JCT and a member of the faculty of the JCT Bet Midrash. He was awarded a fellowship from the Center for Business Ethics for the academic year 2000-2001. He is currently researching topics of business ethics in Jewish Law and is preparing a curriculum to facilitate the teaching of these topics in Rabbinical seminaries (Yeshivot).