By Rabbi Josh Jacobs-Velde, Rabbi of
Congregation Ohev Tzedek
, Youngstown, OH
A recent experience got me thinking about the connections between the mitzvot of food justice from parashat Ki Tetzei and my own life. First, a little background: my family and I are part of a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) in Youngstown, OH. For those who may not know, a CSA is a way to receive local, seasonal, often organic food directly from a farmer. A farmer offers a certain number of “shares” to the public, which consist of a box of vegetables and sometimes other local farm products like cheese or butter. Consumers purchase a share and in return receive a box of seasonal produce each week throughout the farming season.
This relationship creates advantages for farmers and consumers. Farmers get a good price for their crops and receive payment early in the season, which helps with the farm’s cash flow. Consumers get very fresh food that doesn’t have the carbon footprint of having been transported hundreds of miles, and they get to have more of a relationship with where their food comes from. While CSAs originated in Europe and Japan, they have done very well in the US, experiencing exponential growth in recent years. In 1986, there were only two. Now, there are over 6,000.
In July, my family and I went on vacation for a couple weeks. So I told my CSA manager that she could donate our share while we were gone. When I came back, I asked the CSA manager where she had donated the food. She said she had given some to the local food pantry, but some of it was given to people who live in the neighborhood of the community garden that the CSA runs. She said this often happens. Since it is a poor neighborhood, some of the people who live there will approach her for extra food from the garden or for food that she has left over from peoples’ CSA shares. She pointed out to me that in the area I was picking up my CSA share (a spread out suburban middle-class area), there wasn’t anyone who came around asking for extra food.
I was struck by the connection between this experience and the words of Ki Tetzei:
When you knock off your olives, you are not to check-the-boughs after you; for the sojourner, for the orphan and for the widow it shall be. When you cut off (grapes in) your vineyard, you are not to glean after you; for the sojourner, for the orphan and for the widow it shall be. You are to bear-in-mind that serf were you in the land of Egypt, therefore I command you to do this thing!”
(Deut. 24:20-22, trans. Everett Fox)
The Torah is talking about the practice of gleaning (
in Hebrew), also mentioned in Leviticus 19:9-10. The Hebrew word
literally means to pick up, harvest, or collect. It refers to the ears of grain that were accidentally dropped by the owner of the field during the reaping and had to be left for the poor. (For more see The Jewish Dietary Laws, Vol. 2, by Dayan Dr. I. Grunfeld) Here it refers to the left-over olives and grapes. Perhaps the best known example in Judaism of gleaning is in the Book of Ruth, which describes one woman’s struggle for sustenance and dignity on the margins of ancient Israelite society.
Now of course few Jews live in agricultural societies, and through a complicated process, traditional halachic authorities long ago determined (with some exceptions) that gleaning and other food justice mitzvot like
(leaving the corners of one’s field) no longer needed to be observed outside Israel. Also, traditionally, the mitzvot of food justice like
only applied to the Jewish poor, something that would strike most progressive Jews as problematic. Further, unlike in previous eras of Jewish history, farms are now often located far away from population centers where the poor usually live.
But here, as my CSA manager explained, was what struck me as the closest case to putting the mitzvah of Ieket/gleaning into practice that I had encountered: poor people live in the area near the CSA’s community garden, and so they are occasionally given produce from that garden and from other nearby farms (i.e. left-over CSA shares like mine). A mitzvah from the Torah that had previously only been historical and abstract became a bit more real for me.
Normally, when we want to give food to the hungry in contemporary Jewish practice, we write checks or we organize a canned food drive. But when we do that, the direct agricultural connection is lost, in a way that it is not lost to the same degree in the experience I am describing where the local poor and hungry are being given fresh vegetables from local fields.
One of the things I love about Judaism is that it is, at its core, an agricultural tradition. Therefore Judaism has the potential to help us in connecting to the land, the source of our sustenance, in a thoughtful way that also connects us with the traditions of our ancestors. So it has been incredibly exciting to me to see the exponential growth in recent years of what is known as the Food Movement, which emphasizes local, sustainably produced food, and also pays attention to the many justice issues related to where our food comes from. Organizations like Hazon and Kayam Farm have been leaders on these issues in the North American Jewish world.
Overall, I have loved being part of a CSA. Aside from the minor inconvenience of receiving way too much zucchini (what does one really do with zucchini, anyway?), it has helped me to connect more deeply to the land around me which sustains me. But when I joined a couple years ago, I had no idea it would give me deeper insight into the mitzvah of gleaning.