Mishnah and Peah: What the Jews knew about the poor has been forgotten.

He hated Christianity. He hated Judaism. He even hated the pagan religions. He thought all religion was without merit. The Roman Emperor Julian (emperor from AD 361-363), was also known as “the Apostate” because of his atheism.

Bust of Emperor Julian the Apostate

Despite his disdain for their religious traditions and practices, Julian was impressed with the way both Christians and Jews cared for the needy. He is remembered for saying: “For it is disgraceful when no Jew is a beggar and the impious Galileans [i.e. Christians] support our poor in addition to their own.

What an incredible tribute to our forebears in faith – that their care for the poor was noted by an emperor who hated everything about their religion. Julian noticed that they not only cared for the poor in their own circles, but among their religious adversaries as well.


A Hebrew tzedakah box, a traditional collection place for the poor

The Jews and the Early Christians both had a direct channel of support for the poor built into their systems of faith. For the Christians, the term used was “almsgiving,” or giving charity to the poor, which will be discussed in future posts. But almsgiving had its roots in an earlier system – a Hebrew system that was based on the idea of tzedakah, which means “charity that is upright and just.”

Tzedakah was expected of every person who followed God’s Law. As God was establishing the Torah through his servant Moses, he instituted laws concerning tzedakah which came to be known as the laws of peah, or the laws of the “corners.”

In the same passage where God commanded the Hebrews to “love your neighbor as yourself,” He also gave this command concerning the poor:

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God.” Leviticus 19:9-10

This passage is the source of the idea of the peah, or the “corner.” As in . . . leave the corners and edges of your fields for the poor, the Levites, the widows, orphans, and sojourners. These were the laws of gleaning; that when one reaps their harvest, they would automatically think outside of their own provisions. They would automatically leave some of their best crops for the needy. Again, it was built into the system.

God instructed the people of Israel further in Deuteronomy:

If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need. Deuteronomy 15:7-8


The Mishnah, which is a collection of rabbinical teachings from around AD 70-220, became the most important collection of Jewish writings after the Old Testament. In short, the Mishnah is a complex compilation of statements from many Jewish rabbis who lived in the early part of the Common Era. The rabbis disagree with each other on nearly every issue, making the tens of thousands of statements, statues, and interpretations within the works very hard to navigate. Nevertheless, this monumental Jewish source book is full of theological and practical gems for those who follow the Word of Yahweh.

Here is a short passage that begins the “Peah” section of the Mishnah:

These are the things should have no specific measure: the amount one leaves as peah, the first fruits given as an offering, the one’s of your burnt offering, the amount of good deeds one does, and the study of the Torah [God’s Law]. “Peah” 1:1a-b

In other words, God’s people should be careful about putting specific limits on what is given to the poor, what is given as an offering, the good works one does, or the time spent in God’s Word. Why? Because too often our limits on giving become about the thing given and not the person to whom it is given. Because too often our limits on exploring and experiencing God’s truth become about the act itself and not about the discovery of the mysteries and truths of God. How can one truly choose appropriate boundaries for such things?

Moses Maimonides

Moses Maimonides (AD 1135-1204), in his work Mishneh Torah, created what has come to be known as the “Eight Levels of Tzedakah,” or the “Eight Levels of Charity.” This brilliant list of the levels is based on his interpretation of the Mishnah, the Old Testament, and other Hebrew teachings.

They are presented in reverse order, from the least helpful to the most helpful:

8. When charity or a donation is given with a begrudging attitude. (LEAST HELPFUL)

7. When one gives with a cheerful attitude, but gives less than he or she should.

6. When one gives directly to the poor at the time of request.

5. When one gives directly to the poor without being requested.

4. Charity or a donation given when the receiver knows who the giver is, but the giver does not know the receiver.

3. Charity or a donation given when the giver knows who the receiver is, but the receiver is unaware of the source.

2. Offering assistance in such a way that the giver and receiver are unknown to each other. In many cases, this is done through communal funds which are administered by responsible people.

1. To help sustain a person before they suffer the effects of poverty by offering a gift of substance in a respectable way, by loaning the person a sufficient amount, or by helping the person find employment or establishment in a business so that he or she has no need to become dependent on others. (MOST HELPFUL)

Jacob Neusner, who is without a doubt the most influential scholar on Judaism in the Western world today, correlates these eight points into three main principles:

1. The way to deal with poverty is to help the poor help themselves.

2. When one gives (tzedakah) to the poor, the way to do it is so that the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing, so to speak. The poor are respected; the donors remain anonymous.

3. The dignity of the poor must be respected.

The Hebrew system, and the Mishnaic teaching, still have a lot to offer us. As I mentioned, the earliest forms of Christian charity were based on this very system – and we would do well to remember and refresh ourselves on such teaching. It’s like the old “teach the person to fish” adage but with clear biblical intentions, humility, and an emphasis on the dignity of the person who receives.

Simple. Practical. Brilliant. Just the way I like it.


My copy of the Mishnah – 7/10″ pages

The Mishnah, or Halakhot, is a collection of teachings, sayings, and discussions from several Jewish Rabbis from the first through third centuries AD. The word Mishnah comes from a word meaning “instruction,” and generally refers to instruction that was spoken as opposed to that which was written. After the destruction of Herod’s temple by the general and future emperor Titus, and the Roman army (AD 70), these rabbinical teachings began to be passed on and compiled in an effort to preserve orthodox Judaism in the midst of persecution.

The Mishnah became the most important Jewish text after the Old Testament. Its teaching became the standard for interpretation of the Torah and orthodox Jewish teaching. The Mishnah is not, however, a book full of agreement. On the contrary, the Mishnah is full of arguments, disagreements, and debates that are meant to help its hearers and readers learn through wrestling with the Law. In other words, the struggle is a large part of the learning experience in the Mishnah. According to a helpful Jewish source,

“This idyllic world of the Mishnah, however, is not a world of uniformity; far from it. The vast majority of passages in the Mishnah contains a dispute between different rabbinic sages. When does one begin the morning prayers? How does one treat produce which may or may not have had the priestly gifts separated from it? How does one constitute a Jewish marriage? What are the limitations of the liability of someone who watches another’s property? Can cheese and meat be on the same table? How much drawn water invalidates a ritual bath? On all of these issues and on thousands of similar issues, the Mishnah includes various opinions.”

The compilation of this rabbinical teaching is generally credited to Judah the Prince, also known as Judah the Patriarch, a wealthy Jewish leader from a prominent family who died sometime around AD 217. Judah was both a religious and political leader. Again, Judah is not the author but rather the editor of this great teaching. Most scholars agree that the Mishnah did not rise to prominence during the lifetime of Judah. According to Neusner, the Mishnah did not become an essential part of the Jewish and Christian canons in most parts of the Roman Empire until the fourth and fifth centuries AD.

3 thoughts on “Mishnah and Peah: What the Jews knew about the poor has been forgotten.

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