Sukkot is coming up next week. As a self-described natural Jew, I love this harvest holiday. I love decorating a sukkah with gourds and juicy apples (or in the case of my friend Julie’s sukkah two years ago, Jackson Pollack-style splash paint). I love that it’s a time of year when Jews unabashedly sniff citrus fruit and beat palm fronds on the ground. I love that we pray for rain.
It’s also a time of year when I start to think about gleaning – which, as a non-farmer I admit feels a little weird, but actually couldn’t be more relevant. As we learn from Ruth’s story (which is read on another Jewish harvest holiday, Shavuot), the Jewish mitzvah of pe’ah commands that farmers leave the corners of their field to the poor.
This might sound like an amazing act of tzedakah, and I have no quibble with that. But on the other hand, it also just makes sense. This time of year, many farmers (at least the smaller-scale, family farms that I work with) have an embarrassing amount of food. The summer crops are tapering off with final bursts of tomatoes and beans, while the fall crop of beets, potatoes, and squash are just fat enough for the first harvest. You might just say that there is just too much food. Pe’ah evens things out, ensuring that the hungry have enough to eat and the farmer enjoys extra hands in the harvest.
Granted, this is a completely romanticized version of what may or may not actually happened in Biblical Israel, but the notion of it is still powerful. My good friend Anna loves to say that the best kind of answers are the ones that accidentally solve a problem you didn’t know you were asking. I think pe’ah is like that.
Many synagogues across the country have started pairing up with local farms for “modern day pe’ah” where they get a group of people together to harvest the corners of the field and donate it to a local food pantry or shelter. Check out for farms in your area (here’s a good place to start looking, and here’s another) and give them a ring – there’s a good chance they’ll appreciate the extra help!