Shavuot: From Charity and Dependecy to Dignity and Sustainability

The Torah situates Shavuot in the agricultural calendar, 50 days after the first sheaf of grain is harvested. The fiftieth day, Shavuot, is a day of celebration, a “sacred occasion” (Leviticus 23:21). In describing this celebration of the harvest, the Torah reminds the reader:

And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the LORD am your God. [JPS translation]
וּבְקֻצְרְכֶם אֶת קְצִיר אַרְצְכֶם לֹא תְכַלֶּה פְּאַת שָׂדְךָ בְּקֻצְרֶךָ וְלֶקֶט קְצִירְךָ לֹא תְלַקֵּט לֶעָנִי וְלַגֵּר תַּעֲזֹב אֹתָם אֲנִי ה' אֱלֹהֵיכֶם:
Just a few chapters earlier, in Leviticus 19, the Torah lays out this same set of laws, designating specific agricultural products that must be left for the poor: pe’ah, the corners of the field; leket, the fallen stalks; and shich’chah, the forgotten stalks. That the Torah repeats these laws here establishes a connection, unique among the holidays, between Shavuot and our obligation to feed the poor and the hungry.
The biblical reading assigned to Shavuot, the Book of Ruth, further solidifies this connection: The story of Ruth is the only instance in the Bible in which the commandment of leket is practiced. Boaz, a wealthy Israelite landowner, allows Ruth, a landless foreigner, to follow his farmhands as they harvest his fields so she can gather the stalks that they drop. Boaz’s generosity saves Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi from starvation. Beneath this surface meaning of the text,however, there is a more ambiguous dimension to Ruth and Boaz’s interaction—her survival is predicated on his generosity; she becomes dependent on his charity.
In many parts of the world, Ruth’s story is uncomfortably familiar; many rural people lack access to arable land and remain vulnerable to hunger because they are unable to participate directly in the harvest. In response, governments and international institutions have developed systems of food aid that echo the mandates of pe’ah , leket and shich’chah . But like these ancient systems, modern food aid can undercut the well-being of the very people it is intended to help. Shavuot and its relationship to the Book of Ruth provide a timely opportunity to examine the complex relationships among hunger, hunger alleviation and dependence.
Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “I would like to go to the fields and glean among the ears of grain, behind someone who may show me kindness.”
וַתֹּאמֶררוּת הַמּוֹאֲבִיָּה אֶל נָעֳמִי אֵלְכָהנָּא הַשָּׂדֶה וַאֲלַקֳטָה בַשִּׁבֳּלִים אַחַר אֲשֶׁראֶמְצָא חֵןבְּעֵינָיו וַתֹּאמֶר לָהּ לְכִי בִתִּי:
  • Who are the players in this text? What power dynamics are at play among them?
  • Why would Ruth require “someone who may show [her] kindness”?
  • Mapping this story onto the contemporary landscape of hunger, who might the characters in the Book of Ruth represent today?
Naomi, her mother-in-law, said to her, “Daughter, I must seek a home for you, where you may be happy.”
וַתֹּאמֶרלָהּ נָעֳמִי חֲמוֹתָהּ בִּתִּי הֲלֹא אֲבַקֶּשׁ לָךְ מָנוֹחַ אֲשֶׁר יִיטַבלָךְ:
  • Why do you think that Naomi sought a home for Ruth? What does this suggest about Ruth’s position?
  • How does this link to the harvest and the systems of pe’ah, leket and shich’chah?
Sforno on Leviticus 19:9-10
ביאר שאחר שקבלנו אותו לאלהים ראוי לנו ללכת בדרכיו, לעשות צדקה ומשפט, וממיני הצדקה הם לקט שכחה ופאה האמורים בענין, וזה ביאר באמרו אני ה' אלהיכם, כלומר: ומכיוון שאני אלהיכם, וכל ארחותי חסד ואמת, ראוי לכם לשמור מיני הצדקה אלה הרצויים לפני.
. . . After having accepted God, it is appropriate for us to walk in God’s ways, to practice righteousness and justice. Among the types of righteousness are leket, shich’chah and pe’ah that are discussed here. And this is what is meant by, “I, Adonai, am your God.” As if to say, “And since I am your God, and all of My ways are kind and true, it is appropriate for you to observe these types of righteousness that are pleasing before Me.”
  • How might pe'ah be a way to practice "righteousness and justice"? What might be its limitations?

The Torah established the laws of pe'ah, leket and shich'chah to require those with access to food resources to share them with those who are poor and hungry. Elements of these laws and their motivation are are mirrored in today's food aid system. As part of its foreign assistance program, the U.S. government gives food to scores of countries in the Global South. U.S. food aid programs have sent over 106 million metric tons of food to over 100 countries over the past the past 50 years. In 2003, the U.S.'s Food for Peace program donated food produced in the U.S. to over 133 million people.

These programs involve collecting surplus
U.S. agricultural products, shipping them overseas in U.S. ships and either using the food to feed people or, more often, selling it to raise funds for development programs.
Statistics available at
Jonathan Dworken, Acting Director, USAID’s Office of Food for Peace, USDA and USAID International Food Aid Conference VIII, 2006,

[F]ood aid can be very effective when provided early in a crisis. In southern Africa this year, early delivery of large amounts of food aid prevented people from becoming severely malnourished, which makes them more likely to die. It also enabled families to survive the crisis without having to resort to desperate measures of selling animals and farm tools, or eating the seeds they would plant. These things drive families into destitution, and make them more vulnerable next time there are poor rains. Food aid can save livelihoods, as well as lives….What is great about food aid is that when you go abroad and actually see the food being given to hungry people you witness a tangible link between Americans who grow, process, and transport the food, and the people who need it to survive and prosper.

Colin Powell, former Secretary of State, Food for Peace, 1954-2004, Bringing Hope to the Hungry, United States Agency for International Development,
U.S. food has made a huge difference to so many people, assisting in times of crisis and showing that America’s generosity goes beyond all political boundaries. Hunger knows no nationality, and we Americans continue to send our wheat, corn, and other foods wherever they are needed to save lives.
Despite these clear declarations of the importance and effectiveness of U.S. food aid, some organizations have strongly criticized the U.S. system. Food aid that is shipped to countries in the Global South and then distributed freely or sold cheaply on local markets can push local prices down, impacting the livelihoods of local farmers. In 2007, the humanitarian aid organization CARE refused $45 million in U.S. funding due to its objections to the current food aid system. CARE argued that current U.S. food policies make it “difficult to maximize the cost-effectiveness and minimize the unintended harmful consequences of food aid” (CARE White Paper on Food Aid Policy, 2006). U.S. food aid programs seek to feed people while also expanding markets for U.S. agricultural surpluses and supporting shipping contractors, objectives that “may blur the fundamental goal of feeding hungry people” (Bread for the World Institute).
Recent analysis has shown that under some circumstances food aid can harm local production and markets, undermining long-term food security. Studies have shown that food aid is often not the most efficient use of resources for alleviating poverty … CARE’s central focus is on helping poor and vulnerable people overcome food insecurity and vulnerability. Our objectives are to save lives, protect livelihoods, reduce vulnerability and address underlying causes of poverty.
U.S. Food Aid: Time to Get It Right, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, 2005,
In the name of the poor overseas, very large sums of money are now paid to prop up U.S. shipping firms and to buy food at higher than market prices from U.S. based food processors and other agribusinesses. Meanwhile, U.S. private voluntary organizations (PVOs) generate millions of dollars of revenue for their operating costs and for development aid by selling U.S. commodities in local markets in developing countries… A food aid program that makes a real contribution to development must have a two-fold objective: to meet emergency needs, preventing deaths today, and to help build sustainable and self reliant food systems across the world for tomorrow.
  • Who are the stakeholders in U.S. food aid policy? What are some of the benefits and costs of the current food aid system for each of these stakeholders?
  • What might be some changes to the current system that would both meet emergency needs today and build sustainable food systems for the future? What are some difficulties in implementing these changes?
  • How do the story of Ruth and the system of pe’ah, leket and shich’chah inform this discussion?
Leviticus 25:35
וְכִי יָמוּךְ אָחִיךָ וּמָטָה יָדוֹ עִמָּךְ וְהֶחֱזַקְתָּ בּוֹ גֵּר וְתוֹשָׁב וָחַי עִמָּךְ:
And if your brother becomes poor and his means fail him with you, then you shall strengthen him, be he a stranger or a settler, he shall live with you. [JPS translation]
Rashi, Leviticus 25:35 (cf. Torat Kohanim, Sifre Behar, Chapter 5)

והחזקת בו - אל תניחהו שירד ויפול ויהיה קשה להקימו, אלא חזקהו משעת מוטת היד. למה זה דומה, למשאוי שעל החמור, עודהו על החמור אחד תופס בו ומעמידו, נפל לארץ, חמשה אין מעמידין אותו:

Do not let him slip down until he falls completely, for then it will be difficult to raise him; rather, strengthen him as he begins to fall. To what is this comparable? To a burden upon an donkey. While it is still on the donkey, one person can hold it and set it in place. If it falls to the earth, even five people cannot set it back. [AJWS translation]

  • What is the approach to hunger and poverty advocated by these texts?
  • How does this approach compare to the system of pe’ah, leket and shich’chah as practiced in the Book of Ruth?
  • How would you reconcile the differences?
  • In what ways are these tensions reflected in U.S. food aid policy?

The systems of pe’ah, leket and shich’chah described in Leviticus and put into practice in the Book of Ruth offer a way to redistribute resources from those with land to those without it. Today’s U.S. food aid system mirrors such an approach, with both advantages and disadvantages for those who are hungry. Shipping leftover agricultural surpluses overseas can alleviate hunger in the short term, but it may do so at the expense of undermining poor people’s capacity to provide for their own sustenance over the long term. The complexities of the food aid system reflect and magnify some of the problems depicted in the Book of Ruth.

Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator who helped develop liberation theology, stated that:
True generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nourish false charity. False charity constrains the fearful and subdued, the “rejects of life,” to extend their trembling hands. True generosity lies in striving so these hands—whether of individuals or entire people—need be extended less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become human hands which work and,working, transform the world (Pedagogy of the Oppressed , 1970, p. 45).
We encourage you to use Shavuot as a time to think about the distribution of resources and strive toward a world in which true generosity empowers people to create long-term and sustainable solutions to hunger.