The Hungry Gentile

leket-projectThe Gemara relates that Levi had planted grain and there were no poor people to come and collect the leket. He consulted with R’ Sheishes as to what should be done and R’ Sheishes told him that if there are no poor people who will come to collect the leket he may keep it for himself. Rambam rules in accordance with this position and writes that if there are no poor people he may take the grain for himself and is not obligated to give the monetary value of the leket to the poor. Tur writes that if there are no poor people who live in the vicinity one is not obligated to leave leket in his field. Nowadays, the custom is that people do not leave the gifts for the poor in their fields since the majority of the poor people are gentile and if the gifts were left in the fields gentiles would came and take them.

Daf Yomi Digest
Halacha Highlight
“Gifts to the poor”
Chullin 134

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’-Matthew 25:37-40

What a minute. We read in the commentary on the daf that the commandment for a Jewish farmer to leave an unreaped corner of his field for the poor (based on Leviticus 19:9) seems only to apply to the Jewish poor. If there are no poor Jews in the area but only poor Gentiles, the farmer is under no obligation to provide for them. Can that be right? It seems a little harsh. Are we to infer that when Jesus teaches his Jewish disciples about feeding the poor in Matthew 25 that he only means Jewish poor? That’s not the way most Christians would interpret the message and that’s not how Christian charities work in general.

I have great admiration and respect for the Jewish sages and do my best, within my limited skill set, to study their teachings, but this one is a little hard to swallow, assuming I’m reading it right. The Talmud doesn’t universally have such an uncaring attitude toward non-Jews, and quite some time ago, I recorded some of the portions of the Talmud that relate to Gentiles in the blog post, What the Talmud Says About Gentiles, Revisited. Here are a couple of comments regarding how Jews are to treat the poor among the Gentiles:

“[it is proper to] support the idol worshippers during the sabbatical year… and to inquire after their welfare [commentators: even on the days of the holidays of their idols, even if they do not keep the seven Noahide commandments] because of the ways of peace.” (Shevi’it 4,3)

The rabbis taught: ‘We support poor Gentiles with the poor people of Israel, and we visit sick Gentiles as well as the sick of Israel and we bury the dead of the Gentiles as well as the dead of Israel, because of the ways of peace.” (Gitin 61a)

earthquake-aid-assistanceIn recent years, Muslim Turkey, once an ally of Israel, has become increasingly hostile toward the Jewish nation, supposedly over how Israel is “mistreating” the people in Gaza. However, after the most recent earthquake in Turkey, Israel unreservedly offered aid to Turkey and after initial refusals, Turkey accepted.

We know from the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) that Jesus directed his disciples to pray, “And forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors”, which seems to say that how we treat others is the way God will treat us. This also reflects a modern Jewish teaching.

How you treat others is how G-d treats you. How you forgive them is how He forgives you. How you see them is how He sees you.

When you show empathy for the plight of another human being, G-d takes empathy in your plight.

When others slight you and you ignore the call to vengeance that burns inside, G-d erases all memory of your failures toward Him. When you see the image of G-d in another human being, then the image of G-d becomes revealed within you.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“The Image”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

I suppose I’m in no position to disagree with the rulings of the sages, but I’m going to disagree with this one anyway. If the farmer would have left unharvested corners in his field for the poor, they are the poor, regardless if they are the Jews of his community or Gentiles living nearby. I can see that the commandment is meant to apply to the Jews primarily so that if there are Jewish poor, the remains in the field should be for them. However, even if we can’t extend the obligation to feeding poor Gentiles, assuming no Jewish poor are around, I think compassion should tell the farmer that a hungry Gentile was also created in the image of God.

5 thoughts on “The Hungry Gentile”

  1. I have to agree. One thing I’ve come to realize is that God’s love is deeper than I understand. I used to stand in judgement on those who hadn’t yet become “believers”. Then I came to understand that He loves them just as much in their “unbelief” as He would if they did believe. I don’t understand this, but I know it is true. He loved me just as much before I worshiped Him as He does right now, because His love is unchanging and eternal.

    If I wish to convey that love to the world, I must come to see the world as He sees it. Through the eyes of love.

  2. Hi, James. This entire discussion ignores a very important communal realities that the Bible expresses very clearly: the Bible (and Jewish tradition, in a modified way) distinguish between Gentiles in general (called “aliens”) and gerim in particular. Gerim are eligible to harvest the field corner because of their committed relationship with the community of Jews. Gentiles who do not have that kind of relationship are not eligible. In other words, there is a balance between eligibility and responsibility. Eliminating the necessity for Gentiles to be committed to the Jewish community shifts all the responsibility to Jews, making Israeli Jews (since this Torah applies only in the Land of Israel) responsible to feed all the poor who happen to live nearby, thus relieving Gentile communities from that obligation.

    This Torah does not require that Jews be hard-hearted toward poor aliens. Once the community takes care of its own needs, including the needs of gerim, there is a general ethical responsibility to use remaining resources for other poor. However, to ignore these distinctions in favor of a universalist approach to benevolence is a prescription for financial disaster for the Jewish community.

  3. “However, to ignore these distinctions in favor of a universalist approach to benevolence is a prescription for financial disaster for the Jewish community.”

    Carl, this is a very good point – the usually much larger and more influential Gentile communities in the Diaspora are not off the hook from taking care of their own even if the Torah’s “field corner” laws applied in Diaspora (which as you noted, they do not). Regardless, from what I’ve read (at least in pre-revolution Russia) the Gentile poor always knew where to go if they wanted charity – they went to the Jewish quarter.

  4. I suspected this one would come back to bite me. I wasn’t suggesting that we ignore distinctions and I’m very well of the reality of the “ancient Israeli welfare system” and its purpose. I made a few quotes in the blog post having to do with how the Jewish people have taken care of needy Gentiles “for the ways of peace”. However, the commandments having to do with the poor in the Torah has it’s primary and probably its exclusive focus on the needs of the Jewish people and taking care of the community, not the world.

  5. I just read an article posted at Arutz Sheva called Judaism: The Relation of Jews to non-Jews. While today’s “morning meditation” provides a small examination of one tiny dimension of the Jewish/Gentile relationship, Rabbi Eliezer Melamed provides a high-level, global picture of how the Jewish people see their relationship with the nations, and particularly Christians who support Israel. It seems that our devotion to “oto ha’ish” (literally “that man” is often used in the Talmud to refer to the founder of Christianity) will always be a barrier.

    I’ve already written tomorrow’s “morning meditation” but the topic here is worthy of another blog post, either as an “extra” or for another day.

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