G-d Strikes Back Even Harder
Chapter 5, Mishna 12
By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
"During four periods (of the seven year agricultural cycle) pestilence
increases: in the fourth year, in the seventh year, in the year after the
seventh year, and following Sukkos (Tabernacles) of every year. In the first
year because of [the neglect of] the tithe for the poor of the third year;
in the seventh year because of [the neglect of] the tithe for the poor of
the sixth year; in the year after the seventh year because of [the misuse
of] seventh year produce; following Sukkos of every year because of the
stealing of the [agricultural] gifts for the poor."
This mishna discusses the punishment of pestilence. Pestilence was also the
subject of the first part of the previous mishna. That mishna listed two
transgressions which result in pestilence, one of them being the misuse of
seventh year (Sabbatical year) produce. Here, our mishna lists similar
transgressions -- relating to the withholding of crop tithes from the poor.
I would like to first define the sins themselves, then review briefly the
concept of pestilence, and last discuss a similar principle relating to the
sins of our mishna in particular.
As we have discussed in the past, Jewish law defines a seven year
agricultural cycle. During the first six years of the cycle, planting and
harvesting are permitted, while various tithes must be separated from the
produce. On all six years, 10% is set aside for the Levites and
approximately 2% for the Priests. On years 1, 2, 4, and 5, a second tithe
must be set aside and either it or its monetary equivalent must be taken to
Jerusalem and consumed there. On years 3 and 6, a second tithe is separated
and given to the poor. Finally, on all six years, certain portions of the
field must be left for the poor (the "gifts for the poor" of our mishna).
These include: the "corner" of each field, insignificant dropped pickings,
and "forgotten" sections of the field. (For a more detailed exposition, see
to the Poor section of Torah.org's Halacha Overview, compiled by my
father OBM; also see more generally the entire section there devoted to crops.)
The culmination of the agricultural cycle is the seventh year, known as
"Shemittah" or the Sabbatical year, in which planting is forbidden, and
produce which grows spontaneously is sacred; a part of which must be left in
the fields, available to strangers and animals as well as the field owner.
A final relevant point is that in Israel the growing season falls primarily
during the winter, lasting from fall till late spring, roughly in the period
between Sukkos (Tabernacles) and Shavuos (Pentecost). (Winters are temperate
and (hopefully) wet; it rarely goes below freezing in any part of the
country.) Rain almost never falls in the tropical summer, and in Biblical
times, harvested grain would be left to dry in the fields all summer and
then gathered into silos in the fall.
Our mishna tells us of certain times in which pestilence increased -- due to
the failure to properly observe some of the commandments above. The
implication is that the neglect of these laws was so commonplace that
pestilence would regularly increase during these periods. The first two
times were the fourth and seventh years -- for failure to separate the tithe
for the poor by the conclusion of the previous years. The third time is the
first year -- for the misuse of seventh year produce. The final time is the
period after Sukkos every year -- for failure to leave aside the appropriate
portions for the poor.
We explained in the previous mishna Chapter
5:11b the justice behind the punishment of pestilence -- how when the
sanctity of the world or the evil of sin is ignored, G-d strikes out in
broad measure -- reasserting His Presence in the world. Here too when
produce which should be tithed is treated as mundane, G-d finds need to
remind the world that sanctity exists and makes a difference, and that G-d's
will alone controls and determines the fate of man.
There is an additional fascinating angle to our mishna. Why is pestilence --
a form of death penalty -- warranted for failure to give tithes to the poor?
Isn't that basically an issue of stealing -- no small matter to be sure, but
certainly not punishable by death? Why does our mishna come down so harshly
The commentator Rabbeinu Yonah quotes a relevant verse from Mishle
(Proverbs): "Do not steal from the weak because he is weak and do not
oppress the poor in public, for the L-rd will champion their cause and steal
the soul of the one who stole from them" (22:22-3). (The final phrase could
be translated: "and will set the soul as the price for their mistreatment.")
The passage tells us that stealing from the poor is punishable by death.
R. Yonah explains this to be true simply because a poor person owns nothing
nonessential. Anything stolen from him -- certainly the meager crop
gleanings to which he is entitled -- is a bare necessity. Thus, stealing
from him is a matter of life or death: it can quite literally cost him his
life. (Keep in mind that the poor were the big gainers in the Shemittah year
as well. The rich had to leave their fields fallow -- and their orchards
untended. What grew was fair game for both rich and poor.)
The ethical work The Gates of Repentance, also authored by R. Yonah,
implies a different understanding of the verse in Proverbs. (See Section
3:24. What follows is an elaboration of what I believe to be R. Yonah's intent.)
A poor person or any other unfortunate is often defenseless to protect
himself against the ill treatment of others. He often has neither the social
standing nor adequate legal representation (not always free) to demand fair
When such a breach of justice occurs -- the poor are mistreated without
recourse, G-d states that He Himself will come to the aid of the oppressed.
Now, when G-d gets involved, the issue is no longer one of money -- the poor
man's loss of revenue; it is one of human dignity. A person was not given
fair treatment -- simply because he was poor and underprivileged. No one
felt him important enough to regard his needs or grant him his due. When G-d
avenges such an injustice, it is not a financial issue He is championing; it
is a human one. And the price, the currency charged by G-d for belittling a
human soul is nothing less than the soul of the perpetrator.
We can now understand more fully why pestilence is the appropriate
punishment for the sins of our mishna. As we explained earlier, pestilence
results when something holy is ignored, when that which is sacred and
significant to G-d is treated as mundane. In the previous mishna it was
sacred produce: that was bad enough. Here, however, it is something
infinitely more dear and precious to G-d -- and something so much more
difficult to mend -- a human soul. For this, G-d strikes out -- in all His
strength and fury. The perpetrator is going to hear from G-d Himself. Is a
human being worthy of regard only when he is popular, powerful or
influential? Is there no value to the human soul simply because it is in My
image? And so, G-d strikes out -- big time, claiming the very soul of the
one who saw so little in the human soul.
It is a sad fact of life that people who don't "rate" -- who are shyer, less
assertive, or less influential than others are considered less worthy of
regard and fair treatment -- both among children and adults. If he or she is
withdrawn, less popular, and not "in", I will gain nothing from his or her
friendship -- so why should I bother? (Hmm... Now why do you suppose he's
withdrawn in the first place?) To such people, to those who are left out,
lonely, depressed, and oppressed, G-d has a message: "I am *personally*
coming to your aid." "For thus says the lofty and exalted One... I dwell on
high... yet I am with the oppressed and lowly of spirit" (Isaiah 57:15). I
have a warm recollection from my days in yeshiva (rabbinical college), where
one of the most popular guys took pains to befriend one of the quietest --
and make him part of the group. Did it somehow interfere with his own
popularity -- or did it enhance it? In Judaism we are blessed with a G-d not
only of infinite power and justice, but of infinite warmth, compassion, and
concern for great and small alike. May we all learn to follow in His wise
and compassionate ways.
Text Copyright © 2010 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.