“The Economics of Torah”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

The very last chapter of the book of Leviticus chapter 27, which concludes this week’s double parashiot Behar-Bechukotai, focuses on gifts that are offered in, and at times, given to, the Temple.

Leviticus 27 introduces the complicated issue of arachin–valuations, as well as the sanctification and redemption of animals, the redemption of houses and fields, the law of chayrem (objects that are consecrated), the law of the second tithe and the law regarding the tithing of animals.

The Torah, in Leviticus 27:30, writes: “V’chol ma’sar ha’ah’retz mee’zeh’rah ha’ah’retz mip’ree ha’aytz, la’Hashem hoo, ko’desh la’Hashem,” any tithe of the land, of the seed of the land, of the fruit of the tree, belongs to G-d. It is holy to G-d. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible), citing the Talmud in Kiddushin 54b, states that this verse refers to the tithe that is known as “Ma’aser Shaynee,” the Second Tithe. In Leviticus 27:32, the Torah states: “V’chol ma’sar bah’kar va’tzon kol ah’sher ya’ah’vor tah’chaht ha’shah’vet ha’ah’see’ree, yee’yeh kodesh la’Hashem,” any tithe of cattle or of the flock, any that passes under the staff, the tenth one shall be holy to G-d. This statute concerns the tithe known as “Ma’aser B’hayma,” the tithe of animals born of the flock during the current season.

The practices and rituals of the ancient farming community of Israel were governed by a special Sabbatical calendar. For the first six years of each seven year cycle, the people were allowed to plant and work their lands, but on the seventh year the land was to lay fallow. The Sabbatical calendar consisted of seven Sabbatical cycles. At the end of the seventh seven-year cycle, the fiftieth year was declared a Jubilee (Yovel). During that year the land lay fallow as well.

Each year of the Sabbatical cycle, the Jewish farmer was required to bring a tithe known as “Ma’aser Rishon.” A farmer whose field had produced 100 bushels of wheat was required to give 1/10th of the yield to the Levites. In the first, second, fourth and fifth year of the Sabbatical cycle, the farmer was required to give an additional tithe, known as “Ma’aser Shay’nee“–the Second Tithe, from the remaining bushels in the field. The farmer separated 9 bushels (1/10 of the remaining 90 bushels) and set them aside to be eaten in Jerusalem, or redeemed locally, and the money spent in Jerusalem. During the third and sixth year of the Sabbatical cycle, “Ma’aser Ah’nee” was given to the poor. In addition, every Jewish farmer was required to set aside “Terumah,” approximately 2% of the crops, that was given directly to the Cohen (the Priest).

In addition to these standard agricultural tithes, three times a year the ancient Jewish farmers were required to tithe their flocks. Fifteen days before Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot, all flocks that had been born before those dates were gathered into a pen. To exit the pen, the animals had to pass through a narrow opening. As each animal came out, the farmer would count and mark every tenth animal until all the animals had exited. These animals, designated as Ma’aser–tithes, were struck with a rod and painted with a red stripe. Farmers were not permitted to sell or slaughter any animal from their herds before tithing. Animals that had been designated as tithes were eventually brought to Jerusalem, where they were slaughtered, their fat burned, and their blood sprinkled at the base of the altar. The owner was then permitted to invite his friends to partake of the meat, which had to be consumed in Jerusalem. The Priests, however, did not receive any part of this animal.

All grain, oil and wine that had been designated for Ma’aser Shay’nee in the first, second, fourth and fifth year of the Sabbatical cycle had to be brought to Jerusalem, as well, and consumed there, or redeemed, and the monetary value of the grain, oil and wine was to be spent in Jerusalem.

It seems rather odd that this ancient system of “taxation” was so closely tied in to Jerusalem. Several commentators speculate that the reason that Jerusalem plays so prominent a role is because Jerusalem was the citadel of religious and educational life. In fact, before they were replaced by the rabbis, the Priests served as the chief educational officers, as well as the chief religious officials of Israel. The first priority of the Jewish community was always to make certain that the religious and educational functionaries were properly supported by the community, insuring quality education for the people and proper religious leadership.

Couldn’t the special tithe monies simply be sent to Jerusalem in the hands of trusted emissaries? Why require the farmers to personally travel all the way to Jerusalem to redeem these obligations? Both the author of the Sefer Ha’Chinuch (the classic work on the 613 commandments, their rationale and their regulations, by an anonymous author in 13th century Spain) and the Radbaz (David ben Zimra, 1479-1573 spiritual leader of Egypt for over 40 years) offer fascinating reasoning for this requirement.

The extraordinary emphasis that Judaism places on Jewish education is well known. For millennia, Jewish parents have labored diligently to inculcate into their children the greatest dream of Jewish life, that they and their progeny become Torah scholars.

Of course, it would be ideal if all Jews could spend their entire lives studying in Yeshiva where they could continually develop their spiritual, intellectual and ethical potential. Unfortunately, this is frequently unrealistic. Too often, people are required to live where their careers take them.

In ancient Israel, living in a classical agricultural and farming society often meant living far away from Jerusalem–the center of religious and intellectual life. Many outlying Jewish communities would often not have the benefit of having contact with Torah scholars of stature. This lack of exposure to Torah scholarship was considered a great tragedy. The Chinuch and the Radbaz both suggest that in order to remedy this shortcoming, the Torah required that a tithe of the herd or the flock, the second tithe, and the fruits of the fourth year of a new tree, be brought to Jerusalem. This would ensure that every farmer, no matter how close or far, and members of the farmer’s family would be forced to spend time in Jerusalem, and hopefully have the opportunity to study intensively, and, upon their return, share the fruits of their newly acquired knowledge with their home communities.

The great thirst for educational excellence among the Jewish people is no accident. The pursuit of Torah literacy and scholarship was not only the result of the encouragement found in the sacred texts of the Torah and the mandate found in the Shema prayer (Deuteronomy 6:7): “V’shee’nan’tam l’va’neh’chah,” and you shall teach your children! It was also nurtured by the very rituals of Judaism, as demonstrated by the central role that tithing played in business life.

What implications does this have for contemporary times? Our sages recommend that a person always live in a town or city where Torah [study] is to be found. Those of us who are unable to live in rich Torah communities, must find ways to “visit” such communities, especially Jerusalem. Today it is easy to visit Jerusalem by simply boarding a plane and spending time exploring and studying in the city. Visiting “Jerusalem” can also be done vicariously through the many Torah classes available on the internet, tapes and CDs.

Although we no longer bring our tithes to Jerusalem, it is important that Jews today continue to bring the spirit of ancient Jerusalem into our homes. It is not only easier than ever to find a partner in Torah, it is more important than ever to be engaged in Torah.

May you be blessed.