Parashat Emor

May 4, 2011 | Filed in: Divrei Torah, News, Vayikra

By Rabbi Bob Freedman

It’s surprising that there is no blessing to be said before giving tzedakah. Certainly it’s an important mitzvah, but unlike other mitzvot that require us to say a formula to engage mind and spirit before we do them, there’s no such requirement for giving. A passage in our parashah offers a clue as to why this is so.

Appended to the instructions for offering the omer and first fruits, and not eating the new grains before making an offering is a reminder about leaving the gleanings and the corners of the field for the poor (Lev. 23:22-23). But being the second time it’s mentioned (see Lev 19:9-10), here it may teach something new. The first time it’s mentioned, the instruction follows those for a thanks offering, as if to say (see Ibn Ezra there) that just as God has given to us, we, by giving to the needy, give back to God. As commentary to our verses Rashi quotes Rav Avdimi who goes Ibn Ezra one better and says that not only is leaving the gleaning and the corners like giving back to God, it is like rebuilding the temple and bringing the first fruits offering to its altar.

Rav Avdimi probably derived his comment from the fact that the instructions here for leaving gleanings and corners are embedded in a calendar that describes ritual observance in the Temple for the entire year. Leaving part of the harvest for the poor is not an isolated event, but a ritual as important and as regular as those for the festivals, even as integral a part of the year and our life as the harvest itself.

By this reasoning, gathering produce and giving it away are two sides of living. So if there are blessings for the harvest, like the liturgy for bringing first fruits in Deuteronomy 26, shouldn’t there also be a blessing liturgy for leaving part of that harvest?

A further comment by Rashi answers the question. On the word ta-azov, “you will abandon,” he says that we are to leave gleanings and corners before the poor, and it is not for us to help them gather it. When we do the mitzvah of tzedakah, we try to remove as much of ourselves from the act as we can. We’d like to tell the poor how to harvest, what to take, when to do it, how to cook it, etc. But then we might be condescending while polishing our own self-image as knowledgeable, prosperous, and capable. Better to avoid that by just leaving the gleanings. Then our giving has a good chance of being truly generous on a spiritual as well as a material level.

In the same way, if we paused to make a blessing before giving tzedakah, we might think about how superior we are to the recipient, how righteous we are to do this good deed, and how clever to remember the proper blessing. Better that we just do it. Then, as Rav Avdimi suggests, our selflessness might rebuild the Temple, and our offering on its altar would be simply for God.


Rabbi Bob Freedman is the cantor at Society Hill Synagogue in Philadelphia.