Guide for the Perplexed, by Moses Maimonides, Friedländer tr. , at sacred-texts.com
THE precepts in the fourth class include the laws which in our work are contained in the section Zera'im, excepting the laws on the mixture of species: the rules about things to be "valued" and things "devoted" (Hilkot ‘erekin va-haramim), and those concerning lender and borrower (Hilkot malveh ve-loveh) and slaves (Hilkot ‘abadim). When you examine these precepts you will clearly see the use of every one of them: they teach us to have sympathy with the poor and infirm, to assist the needy in various ways; not to hurt the feelings of those who are in want, and not to vex those who are in a helpless condition [viz., the widow, the orphan, and the like]. The purpose of the laws concerning the portions which are to be given to the poor is likewise obvious; the reason of the laws concerning the heave-offerings and the tithe is distinctly stated: "for he hath no portion and inheritance with thee" (Deut. xiv. 29). You certainly know that the Levites had no portion, because their whole tribe was to be exclusively engaged in the service of God and the study of the Law. They shall not plow or cut the corn, but shall only minister to God." They shall teach Jacob thy judgments and Israel thy law: they shall put incense before thee" (Deut. xxxiii. 10). In the Law we meet frequently with the phrase, "the Levite, the stranger, and the orphan and the widow"; for the Levite is reckoned among the poor because he had no property. The second tithe was commanded to be spent on food in Jerusalem: in this way the owner was compelled to give part of it away as charity. As he was not able to use it otherwise than by way of eating and drinking, he must have easily been induced to give it gradually away. This rule brought multitudes together in one place, and strengthened the bond of love and brotherhood among the children of men. The law concerning the fruit of a tree in its fourth year has some relation to idolatrous customs, as has been stated by us (chap. xxxvii.), and is connected with the law concerning the fruit of a tree in its first three years. But it has in addition the same object as the law concerning the heave-offering (Deut. xviii. 4), the dough-offering (ḥallah) (Num. xv. 20), the first-fruit (Exod. xxiii. 19), and the first of the shearing (Deut. xviii. 4). For the first of everything is to be devoted to the Lord; and by doing so man accustoms himself to be liberal, and to limit his appetite for eating and his desire for property. The same is the reason why the priest took the shoulder, the two cheeks, and the maw (Deut. xviii. 3); the cheek being the first part of the body of animals, the right shoulder the first of the extremities of the body, and the maw the first of all inwards.
The reciting of a certain portion of the Law when the first-fruits are brought to the temple, tends also to create humility. For he who brings the first-fruits takes the basket upon his shoulders and proclaims the kindness and goodness of God. This ceremony teaches man that it is essential in the service of God to remember the times of trouble and the history of past distress, in days of comfort. The Law lays stress on this duty in several places; comp. "And thou shalt remember that thou hast been a slave," etc. (Deut. v. 15). For it is to be feared that those who become great in riches and comfort might, as is generally the case, fall into the vices of insolence and haughtiness, and abandon all good principles. Comp. "Lest thou eat and
be full, etc., and thine heart be lifted up and thou forget the Lord" (ibid. viii. 12-14); "And Jeshurun waxed fat and kicked" (ibid. xxx. 15). On account of this fear the Law commanded us to read each year a certain portion before the Lord and His glory, when we offer the first-fruit. You know how much the Law insists that we shall always remember the plagues that have befallen the Egyptians; comp. "That thou mayest remember the day when thou camest forth out of the land of Egypt all the days of thy life" (ibid. xvi. 3); "That thou mayest tell in the ears of thy son what things I have wrought in Egypt" (Exod. x. 2). Such a law was necessary in order to perpetuate the memory of the departure from Egypt; because such events verify prophecy and the doctrine of reward and punishment. The benefit of every commandment that serves to keep certain miracles in remembrance, or to perpetuate true faith, is therefore obvious.
In reference to the law concerning the first-born of man and cattle it Is distinctly said, "And it came to pass, when Pharaoh would hardly let us go, that the Lord slew all the first-born in the land of Egypt, etc., therefore I sacrifice to the Lord," etc. (Exod. xiii. 15). But it can easily be explained why only cattle, sheep, and asses are mentioned in this law; these are kept as domestic animals, and are found in most places, especially in Palestine, where the Israelites were shepherds, they, their fathers, and forefathers; comp. "Thy servants are shepherds, both we and also our fathers" (Gen. xlvii. 3). Horses and camels, however, are not wanted by shepherds, and are not found in all places; thus in the booty of Midian (Num. xxxi.) no other animals are mentioned but oxen, sheep, and asses. But asses alone are indispensable to all people, especially to those who are engaged in the field or in the forest. Thus Jacob says, "I have oxen and asses" (Gen. xxxii. 5). Camels and horses are not possessed by many people, but only by a few, and are only found in a few places. The law that the first-born of an ass was to have its neck broken [in case it is not redeemed], will only ensure the redemption of the ass. It has, therefore, been said that the act of redeeming the ass is to be preferred to that of breaking its neck.
As to the precepts enumerated in the laws concerning the year of release and the jubilee (Hilkot shemittah ve-yohel) some of them imply sympathy with our fellow-men, and promote the well-being of mankind; for in reference to these Precepts it is stated in the Law, "That the poor of thy people may eat" (Exod. xxiii. 11); and besides, the land will also increase its produce and improve when it remains fallow for some time. Other precepts of this class prescribe kindness to servants and to the poor, by renouncing an claims to debts [in the year of release] and relieving the slaves of their bondage [in the seventh year]. There are some precepts in this class that serve to secure for the people a permanent source of maintenance and support by providing that the land should remain the permanent property of its owners, and that it could not be sold." And the land shall not be sold for ever" (Lev. xxv. 23). In this way the property of a person remains intact for him and his heirs, and he can only enjoy the produce thereof. I have thus explained the reason of all precepts contained in our work in the Section Zera‘im, with the exception of the laws concerning the intermixture of different species of beasts the reason of which will be given (chap. xlix.).
In the same manner we find that all the precepts comprised in "the laws
on valuations," and on "things devoted" are based on the principle of charity: some of them prescribe what should be given to the priests; others tell us what must be devoted to the repairs of the temple. The practice of all these things accustoms man to act liberally and to spend money unhesitatingly to the glory of God. For it is in the nature of man to strive to gain money and to increase it; and his great desire to add to his wealth and honour is the chief source of misery for man. Also the precepts contained in "the laws concerning the relation between lender and borrower" (Hilkot malveh veloveh) will be found, on being carefully examined, to be nothing but commands to be lenient, merciful and kind to the needy, not to deprive them of the use of anything indispensable in the preparation of food. "No man shall take the nether or the upper millstone to pledge: for he taketh a man's life to pledge" (Deut. xxiv. 6).
The precepts contained in "the laws concerning slaves" (Hilkot ‘abadim), likewise prescribe only acts of pity, mercy and kindness to the poor. It is an act of mercy to give liberty to a Canaanite servant for the loss of one of his limbs (Exod. xxi. 26, 27), in order that he should not suffer from slavery and illness at the same time. The law applies even to the case that a tooth of a slave has been knocked out, much more to the mutilation of other limbs. He could only be corrected with a rod or reed or the like, as we have stated in Mishneh-torah. Besides, if the master strikes the slave too hard and kills him, he is punished with death as for ordinary murder. Mercy is also the object of the law, "Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant that is escaped from his master" (Deut. xxiii. 15); but it teaches besides a very useful lesson, namely, that we must always practise this virtue, help and protect those who seek our help, and not deliver them unto those from whom they flee; and it is not sufficient to give assistance to those who are in need of our help; we must look after their interests, be kind to them, and not hurt their feeling by words. Thus the Law says: "He shall dwell with thee, even among you, in that place which he shall choose in one of thy gates, where it liketh him best: thou shalt not vex him" (ibid. ver. 16). This we owe to the lowest among men, to the slave; how much more must we do our duty to the freeborn, when they seek our assistance? But, on the other hand, when sinners and evildoers seek our help, it must not be granted; no mercy must be shown to them, and the course of justice must not be interfered with, even if they claim the protection of that which is noblest and highest; for "Thou shalt take him from mine altar that he may die" (Exod. xxi. 14). Here a person comes to seek the help of God, and claims the protection of that which is devoted to his name; God, however, does not help him, and commands that he be delivered up to the prosecutor, from whom he fled. Much less need any one of us help or pity his fellow-men [under such circumstances]; because mercy on sinners is cruelty to all creatures. These are undoubtedly the right ways designated "righteous statutes and judgments" (Deut. iv. 8), and different from the ways of the fools, who consider a person praiseworthy when he helps and protects his fellow-men, without discriminating between the oppressor and the oppressed. This is well known from their words and songs.
The reason and usefulness of every precept of this class has thus been clearly demonstrated.