Ma’aser Shay’nee–The Second Tithe”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

Toward the very end of this coming week’s parasha, parashat Bechukotai, we learn the law of Ma’aser Shay’nee, the second tithe. The Torah, in Leviticus 27:30, states: “V’chol ma’ah’sar ha’aretz, mee’zeh’rah ha’aretz, mee’pree ha’aytz, la’Hashem hu, kodesh la’Hashem.” And any tithe of the seed of the land, of the fruit of the tree, belongs to G-d, it is holy to G-d. Rashi explains that this verse is speaking of “Ma’aser Shay’nee“–the Second Tithe. After the “First Tithe” is separated and given to the Levite, a second tithe–10% of the remaining crop of grain, oil and wine, is separated during the first, second, fourth, and fifth years of the seven year Sabbatical cycle. The second tithe must be eaten in Jerusalem or redeemed for money which is to be used in Jerusalem. During the third and sixth years of the Sabbatical cycle, the second tithe was designated as Ma’aser Ah’nee, the tithe for the poor, instead of being designated for Jerusalem.

The Sefer Ha’Chinuch (classic commentary on the 613 commandments written in the 13th century) and the Radbaz (Rabbi David B. Zimra, Chief Rabbi of Egypt, c.1480-1573) explain that most people’s places of residence are usually determined by how they earn their livelihoods. While it is always desirable for a Jew to spend his entire life in the proximity of great academies of learning, like Jerusalem, where people could continually develop their spiritual and intellectual potential, it is not always practical or possible.

In an agricultural society, like ancient Israel, it often meant living away, far from Jerusalem, the center of religious and intellectual activity. As a result of the Jewish community being dispersed, not everyone had access to intensive Jewish educational facilities, which, of course could have dire implications. To remedy this situation, the Torah commanded that the second tithe, as well as the tithe of the herd or the flock, and the second and the fourth year fruits of a new tree, must be brought to Jerusalem. These visits to Jerusalem made it likely that even farmers and members of their families who lived great distances from Jerusalem would spend significant amounts of time in Jerusalem, engaging in intensive study there and deriving much religious inspiration from their visit. They would then return to their communities and benefit their neighbors with their newly acquired Torah knowledge. (Based on The Mitzvot–The Commandments and their Rationale, by Abraham Chill, Bloch Publishing Co.)

Clearly, Jerusalem was the religious citadel of the people of Israel and the seat of the most important religious and Jewish educational institutions. The fact that every Jew had to come to Jerusalem, not only on the three major festivals of the year, but also in order to redeem their second tithes and their new fruits, meant that Jews not only spent regular and considerable time in Jerusalem, but also that they expended significant amounts of money in the Holy City. Thus, in addition to exposing the average Jew to the religious and educational environment of Jerusalem, the visits provided the economic support of Jerusalem–economic contributions that also served to support Jewish education, and the clergy of Israel–the Cohanim, and the teachers.

It is quite remarkable that, already 3,000 years ago, the Torah recognized the primacy of Jewish education. Jerusalem, which was the spiritual center and the educational hub of Israel, needed to be seen as the peoples’ foremost charitable priority. Firmly establishing this priority in the earliest stages of the peoples’ history, set the tone for the Jewish people’s survival and success during the millennia to come. Jewish education was not to be seen as a luxury for only the children of the rich, or for gifted children only. From its earliest days of nationhood, the Jewish people were told that but for issues of life and death, Jewish education was to be the Jewish people’s foremost concern and the most important charitable priority of our people.

It is this simple, rather modest statute to “bring the tithe of the land” that has guaranteed Jewish continuity and Jewish future. It may sound like a simple verse, but it is truly the “elixir of life” for our people Israel.

May you be blessed.