“Ma’aser Shay’nee–The Second Tithe”
(updated and revised from Bechukotai 5763-2003)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Toward the very end of this week’s parasha, parashat Bechukotai, we learn the law of מַעֲשַׂר שֵׁנִי –Ma’aser Shay’nee, the Second Tithe.

The Torah, in Leviticus 27:30, states: וְכָל מַעְשַׂר הָאָרֶץ מִזֶּרַע הָאָרֶץ מִפְּרִי הָעֵץ לַהשׁם, הוּא קֹדֶשׁ לַהשׁם, 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 refers to the giving of “Ma’aser Shay’nee”–the Second Tithe.

After the Terumah Gedolah (the heave offering of the grain, wine and oil) is given to the Cohen, and 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 required to be used in Jerusalem to purchase either food or offerings. During the third and sixth years of the Sabbatical cycle, that second tithe was designated as מַעְשַׂר עָנִיMa’aser Ah’nee, the Tithe for the Poor, instead of being designated for Jerusalem.

The Sefer Ha’Chinuch  and the Radbaz explain that most people’s places of residence are usually determined by how they make a living. While it is always desirable for Jews to spend their entire lives in the proximity of great academies of learning, such as 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 from the center of religious and intellectual activity, far from Jerusalem. As a result of the Jewish community being dispersed, many Jews had no direct 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 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 visits. 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.)

Clearly, Jerusalem was the religious citadel of the people of Israel and the seat of the most important religious and Jewish educational institutions. Because every Jew had to come to Jerusalem, not only on the three major pilgrim festivals each year, but also to redeem their second tithes and their new fruits, Jews not only spent considerable time in Jerusalem, but also expended significant amounts of money in the Holy City. Thus, in addition to exposing large numbers of Jews to the religious and educational environment of Jerusalem, the visits also provided significant economic resources for 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 served as 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 only for gifted children. 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 peoples’ 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” to Jerusalem, that has guaranteed Jewish continuity and Jewish future.

It may sound like a simple verse, but it has truly proven to be the “elixir of life” for the Jewish people.

May you be blessed.