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The Symbolic Meaning of Leket

There are many commandments in the Torah that seem to fall under the “that sounds like a good idea” category, especially the ones dealing with forms of charity. But if we look at them carefully, we’ll see that they may really be about something else entirely! Here’s one:

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather (leket) the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather (leket) the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the LORD am your God.

The thing is, there are other words in biblical Hebrew that mean “to gather,” so why, in a language with so few unique words, is the word leket used? The answer helps explain what the commandment is really about!

The first time the word leket is used, Jacob is building a mound to divide the world between himself and his father-in-law, Lavan.

And Jacob said to his kinsmen, “Gather (leket) stones.” So they took stones and made a mound. (Gen. 31:46) … And Laban said to Jacob, … “this mound shall be witness … that I am not to cross to you past this mound, and that you are not to cross to me past this mound. (31:51-52)

The word is used to describe a division between people, a red line to keep people apart.

The next time the word is used:

Joseph gathered (leket) all the money that was to be found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, as payment for the rations that were being procured.

This event is the swing between the years of plenty and the years of famine. Leket is the dividing verb, marking the spot between the good years for Egypt and the bad years, years when the Egyptian people were progressively enslaved to Pharaoh because of Joseph’s policies.

Similarly, the text uses the word leket for the manna as well, to describe the difference between the six days, and the seventh day, the sabbath day:

And the LORD said to Moses, “I will rain down bread for you from the sky, and the people shall go out and gather (leket) each day that day’s portion… But on the sixth day, when they apportion what they have brought in, it shall prove to be double the amount they gather (leket) each day. … On the sixth day they gathered (leket) double the amount of food, two omers for each; and when all the chieftains of the community came and told Moses, he said to them, “This is what the LORD meant: Tomorrow is a day of rest, a holy sabbath of the LORD. .. Then Moses said, “Eat it today, for today is a sabbath of the LORD; you will not find it today on the plain. Six days you shall gather (leket) it; on the seventh day, the sabbath, there will be none.”

The word leket is clearly used here to illustrate another division: the days of the week, and the holy Shabbos day of rest.

And now we can better understand the commandment of leket, of specifically not gathering grain or grapes that have fallen in the field. Certainly the commandment helps the poor, who are free to come and help themselves to that which has fallen (note that there is no obligation to simple give them grain). But you have to read all the way to the punchline:

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather (leket) the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather (leket) the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the LORD am your God.

The Torah forbids us to gather, to leket, telling us that we are forbidden to create a division between landowners and the poor and the stranger! Why? Because we are all under G-d, equally endowed in His eyes, whether we are rich or poor. “I the Lord am your G-d” is in the plural: the G-d of ALL the people.

The use of the word leket thus always marks a division, either between people or between the time of significant events. And thus the commandment to not engage in leket with our fields and vineyards is a reminder that we are all one people, and we must always seek to minimize division between us.

Comments are welcome!

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