Anavah: Not Just Humility

Anavah is typically translated as humility. And, in many contexts, that translation is certainly accurate. To take just one classic example, Moshe Rabbeinu is described as "anav me'od" (Bamidbar 12:3), exceedingly humble. An intriguing Mishnah in Peah (1:2), however, seems to indicate otherwise.

After having famously taught that there is no minimum amount for peah, the Mishnah goes on to say that in fact there is a shiur miderabanan of roughly 1/60th of one's field. The Mishnah concludes that the precise amount one must leave for the poor is contingent upon three factors:

ואע"פ שאמרו אין לפאה שיעור הכל לפי גודל השדה ולפי רוב העניים ולפי רוב הענוה:

And even though the [rabbis] said peah does not have a minimum amount, everything accords with the size of the field, the extent of the poor, and the extent of "anavah."

The former conditions seem relatively straightforward. First, the larger the field the greater the obligation to give. Second, the greater the number of local aniyim, the more peah one ought to leave.

The final condition, however, is problematic. If we follow the generally accepted translation of humility, the Mishnah is rather difficult to follow. What does humility have to do with the minimum shiur of peah?

Perhaps due to the difficulty of our printed text, some commentaries suggest an alternative spelling of anavah. Smag (284), for example, is cited by the Mishnaic commentaries as having held that the proper text is ״,ולפי רוב הענבה״ substituting a ב for the ו. For this textual variant, Bartenura suggests that "anavah" is properly translated as berries. The Mishnah means to teach that if different sections of the field yield varying qualities of produce, one should be sure to leave peah from a diverse cross-section of the field, in order to properly care for the poor.

Even those who operate with our printed text sought to reinterpret anavah. Rambam, for instance, offers an alternative interpretation, proposing that "anavah" refers to "aniyah," taken from the word poverty. Depending on the poverty of the field, meaning how much produce it typically yields and how quickly it can reproduce, one is obligated to leave a smaller or greater amount of peah.

Other commentaries (Bartenura in another interpretation and Rishon Letziyon) cite the view of the 11th century Italian scholar R. Natan, who in his classic dictionary the Aruch suggests that anavah refers not to the field but to the field owner himself. To the degree of the field owner's anavah is his obligation to separate peah. To buttress this reading, the Aruch cites the verse in Tehilim (18:36), in which David, as part of his series of praises to God for having saved him from his enemies, sings ״וענותך תרבני״, "and your anavah enlarges me."

The Aruch's interpretation, however, is unclear. His reference to the verse of Tehilim obscures more than it clarifies. What does anavah mean in Tehilim, and how does its usage illuminate our Mishnah?

Much as in the case of our Mishnah, the commentaries suggest a range of interpretations of the verse in Tehilim. Targum, to take one example, enigmatically suggests that the term וענותך means ומימרך, and your word. It is unclear how these two terms come to be associated, and what it means that the word of Hashem led to David's victory.

Radak, perhaps similarly troubled by the odd association between Hashem's anavah and David's victory, associates the word with chasidut, meaning that God's piety led to David's rout. Although humility and piety often go hand-in-hand, the term anavah seems misplaced.

Malbim, for his part, accepts the classic rendering of anavah as humility, but reinterprets the passuk in a different direction: Hashem's modesty was not directly responsible for David's military prowess. Rather, God's humility enabled David to appear as if he were the party responsible for the victory, whereas in fact it was Hashem.

Concluding our brief survey, Metzudat David adopts yet a fourth reading. Your anavah, says David in praise of Hashem, led You to care for me despite my lowliness, as if I were commanding a sizeable army.

Where does R. Natan fit in among this range of interpretive approaches? The Aruch, I believe, is suggesting yet another reading of the passuk, one which is closest to that of Metzudat David and the larger context of Tehilim 18. A survey of the larger arc of the Mizmor indicates that David is praising God for not only having enabled the king to win the battle but, more than that, for being a constant presence at David's side. A brief look at a few of the immediately surrounding pesukim suffices to prove the point:

:לג) הָאֵל הַמְאַזְּרֵנִי חָיִל וַיִּתֵּן תָּמִים דַּרְכִּי

:לד) מְשַׁוֶּה רַגְלַי כָּאַיָּלוֹת וְעַל בָּמֹתַי יַעֲמִידֵנִי

:לה) מְלַמֵּד יָדַי לַמִּלְחָמָה וְנִחֲתָה קֶשֶׁת־נְחוּשָׁה זְרוֹעֹתָי

:לו) וַתִּתֶּן־לִי מָגֵן יִשְׁעֶךָ וִימִינְךָ תִסְעָדֵנִי וְעַנְוַתְךָ תַרְבֵּנִי

:לז) תַּרְחִיב צַעֲדִי תַחְתָּי וְלֹא מָעֲדוּ קַרְסֻלָּי

33) The God that girds me with strength, and makes my way straight.

34) Who makes my feet like hinds', and sets me upon my high place.

35) Who trains my hands for war, so that mine arms do bend a bow of brass.

36) Thou hast also given me Thy shield of salvation, and Thy right hand hath holden me up; and Thy condescension hath made me great.

37) Thou hast enlarged my steps under me, and my feet have not slipped.

The pesukim clearly describe Hashem as not merely having supported David, but as quite literally standing at his side.

It would therefore appear that the Aruch is translating the term ״וענותך תרבני״ in a novel fashion. Although, as noted above, we generally render anavah as humility, in fact that translation derives from the word's more essential meaning. Anavah literally means lowliness, and is closely associated with the term "shiflut." Humility is a type of lowness of spirit, and thus is a derivative meaning. The core meaning of the term, however, remains that of lowliness. Thus, David's praise is that he has been enlarged by God's anavah, i.e. His immediate presence at David's side. Hashem, in other words, does not merely sympathize with David from afar. He empathizes by lowering Himself to the level of the king.

A strikingly similar usage appears in a classic agadta in Megilla (31a), which teaches:

אמר רבי יוחנן: כל מקום שאתה מוצא גבורתו של הקדוש ברוך הוא אתה מוצא ענוותנותו; דבר זה כתוב בתורה ושנוי בנביאים ומשולש בכתובים. כתוב בתורה - יחכי ה' אלהיכם הוא אלהי האלהים ואדני האדנים, וכתיב בתריה עשה משפט יתום ואלמנה. שנוי בנביאים - יטכה אמר רם ונשא שכן עד וקדוש וגו', וכתיב בתריה ואת דכא ושפל רוח. משולש בכתובים דכתיב כסלו לרכב בערבות ביה שמו, וכתיב בתריה אבי יתומים ודין אלמנות.

R. Johanan said: Wherever you find [mentioned in the Scriptures] the power of the Holy One, blessed be He, you also find his lowness mentioned. This fact is stated in the Torah, repeated In the Prophets, and stated a third time in the [Sacred] Writings. It is written in the Torah, For the Lord your God, he is the God of gods and Lord of lords, and it says immediately afterwards, He doth execute justice for the fatherless and widow. It is repeated in the Prophets: For thus saith the High and Lofty One, that inhabits eternity whose name is holy, and it says immediately afterwards, [I dwell] with him that is of a contrite and humble spirit. It is stated a third time in the [Sacred] Writings, as it is written: Extol him that rides upon the skies, whose name is the Lord, and immediately afterwards it is written, A father of the fatherless and a judge of the widows.

Clearly, the primary meaning of "anavah" in Megilla is not God's humility but, more precisely, His willingness to lower Himself to the level of the widow and orphan.

For the Aruch, then, this is the meaning of our Mishnah as well. Anavah denotes not the modesty of the field owner but rather his ability to empathize with the needs of the poor. To the extent that the ba'al hasadeh is able to put himself in the headspace of the ani he is obligated to give more. And for this reason, the Mishnah draws directly from the language of the passuk, transmuting וענותך תרבני into ולפי רוב ענותו.

Two remarkable insights emerge from the Aruch's interpretation of our Mishnah. First, intriguingly, the Mishnah indicates that one's generosity becomes a spur toward a higher degree of obligation. The rabbis do not only compliment the good will of the generous field owner, they up the ante and require of him even more. Second, anavah, whose essential meaning denotes lowliness, can by association refer to one's ability to empathize with the acute pain of the needy. In a sense, then, the Mishnah in Peah speaks of a characteristic that is closely associated with imitatio dei, mimicking the ways of Hashem: just as God is present with the underprivileged and the struggling warrior king, so too we are charged to not just provide for, but truly empathize with the impoverished in our own backyards.

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