“Contemporary Implications of an Ancient Ritual”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In our analysis of parashat Kee Tavo for 2003/5763, we reviewed the message of the extraordinary confession that was recited by the ancient Israelites when they redeemed their tithes in Jerusalem.

Jewish farmers in those days were taxed about 19 percent. Each year of the seven year sabbatical cycle, farmers were required to give Terumah, a heave offering, directly to the priests. The rabbis set the rate of Terumah at about 2 percent. In each year of the sabbatical cycle, with the exception of the seventh year, every Jewish farmer gave the Levite, Maaser Rishon, 1/10th of his field produce. In the second, fourth and fifth year of the cycle, the farmer was required to redeem an additional ten percent in Jerusalem, known as Maaser Sheni. In the third and sixth years of the Sabbatical cycle, the farmer gave that tithe, Maaser Ani, to the poor.

In the afternoon on the final day of Passover of the fourth and seventh year of the sabbatical cycle, the farmer came to the temple in Jerusalem and recited his oral confession. He declared that during the previous three years he had faithfully discharged his duties and obligations concerning all offerings, tithes and donations that were imposed upon him.

As part of the confession, the farmer also asserted that he had not taken of Maaser Sheni while in a state of Aninut, a state of intense mourning between the death and burial of one of his seven closest relatives. He declared, furthermore, that he was not ritually defiled while eating the Maaser Sheni, nor did he partake of the food when it was Tamei (impure), though he himself was ritually pure.

The Ibn Ezra (1098-c.1164, Spanish Bible commentator) explains that the confession was more like a wish for G-d to acknowledge that the farmer had discharged his duty conscientiously and punctiliously. Each farmer then asked G-d to bless his labors with success and the soil with fruitfulness.

The Abarbanel (Spanish statesman, philosopher and commentator, 1437-1508), in a lengthy explanation, states that the confession that was recited while redeeming the tithes was a way for the farmer to prove his sincerity. He notes that, in general, farmers were eager to bring their donations to the temple, because the public nature of the gift would enhance their image in the presence of all those gathered in the Temple. But in the case of Maaser Ani, the tithe for the poor, the farmer might be reluctant and uncharitable in his heart, since it was distributed only at the gates where the poor people gathered, without witnesses or publicity. The Jew, therefore, confessed aloud that he has given his gifts with total purity of motivation, and in the hope that his confession may lead him to adopt a more positive attitude toward charity.

The Abarbanel concludes that there are significant implications that may be learned from the various elements that are included in the farmer’s confession.

In Deuteronomy 26:14, the donor states that he has not performed any forbidden actions with the produce: “Lo achalt’ee b’onee me’nenu, v’lo ve’artee me’menoo v’tamay, v’lo natatee me’menu l’mait,” I have not eaten of it in my intense mourning, I did not consume it in a state of ritual contamination, and I did not give of it to the needs of the dead.

The declaration continues with the farmer stating that he has listened to the voice of G-d and has acted according to everything that G-d commanded him. He begs G-d to look down from his holy abode, from heaven, and to bless the people of Israel and the ground that G-d gave them, that He swore to their forefathers, a land flowing with milk and honey.

It is from this declaration that the Abarbanel deduces three implications from the confession.

1. “Lo achaltee v’onee me’menoo,” I have not eaten of it in my intense mourning. The Abarbanel plays on the different meanings of the word “oni” when spelled with an “aleph,” which means grief, and “oni” when spelled with an “ayin,” which means poverty. He argues that the intent of this confession was as follows: “Although there were times when I myself needed charity, I nevertheless gave a tithe of the little that I then had to others who were more needy than myself, and did not personally keep any.”

2. “V’loo vee’artee me’menu v’tamay,” I did not consume it in a state of contamination–I did not eat it when I was ritually impure. What the farmer is stating, in effect, is that he gave an honest and pure portion, the full measure of pure wheat, not impure wheat mixed with much chaff.

3. “V’lo nata’tee me’menu l’mayt,” I did not give of it for the needs of the dead. The Abarbanel explains that when some people are asked about their charity, they proudly declare that they have given charity to the poor, and might even name a family whom no one recognizes. In this confession, the Jew is asked to state that he has been honest in his gifts to the poor and did not pretend to give to persons who in truth don’t exist.

Although the people of Israel today no longer have a temple and few are engaged in agriculture, many of the principles that may be gleaned from the declaration concerning the tithes could very well apply in contemporary times, especially with respect to charitable giving. Every Jew who gives charity must bear in mind not to give charity in grief (oni), but with joy and an open hand. We need to acknowledge that the poor person may be doing more for us than we are doing for him, by giving us an opportunity to be charitable and to raise our ethical spirits and elevate our souls.

The fact that we must give charity even though we are in a state of ritual uncleanness today implies that we need to give wholeheartedly, to give graciously, and to give sufficiently so that the poor will have something to live and build on.

Finally, when we give, we need to take our charity seriously, to make certain that we are giving to truly deserving people, to look for and seek out people who are genuinely in need, especially those who may be too proud to ask for help. While we need to discourage the charlatans from collecting, we need to realize that they too are in need, and that if they are prepared to so demean themselves by begging for charity even though they really are not in need, they obviously are in need.

Like the Israelites of old, we must be able to stand before the divine presence and declare: “G-d, we give with an open heart and an open hand.”

Tzedakah, charity, is not just kindness, it is the right thing to do.

May you be blessed