MEANING IN MITZVOT by Rabbi Asher Meir
Each week we discuss one familiar halakhic practice and try to show its beauty and meaning. The columns are based on Rabbi Meir's commentary Meaning in Mitzvot on Kitzur Shulchan Arukh.
Trumah & Maaser
We are accustomed to saying that we give trumah to the Kohen and give maaser to the Levi. Yet a careful look at our parsha shows that this is not quite precise, and there are two related differences between these two “gifts”.
We don’t actually give trumah to the Kohen at all! Rather, we give it to HaShem, who in turn passes it along to the Kohen. “All trumot of sanctity which the children of Israel elevate to HaShem, I have given it to you and your sons and your daughters...” (Bamidbar 18:19). And regarding the trumah which the Levi gives from his own maaser, we read: “You also shall separate the trumah of HaShem from all your tithes which you take from the children of Israel, and you shall give of it the trumah of HaShem to Aharon the Kohen” (Bamidbar 18:28).
The gemara expresses this idea by saying that the Kohanim receive their trumah “from the table of the Most High”, not from the people themselves (BK 13a).
Whereas maaser is not referred to as the maaser of HaShem, but rather “tithes in
Furthermore, from the end of this verse we learn that the tithes to the Leviim have a specific purpose. “In return for the service which they perform, the service of the Tent of Meeting”.
The main halakhic differences between trumah and maaser can be understood as expressions of this difference of purpose between these two agricultural gifts. Here are a few examples:
1. Trumah is sanctified, and can only be eaten by Kohanim (Rambam Trumot 6:1), only when they are pure and when the trumah is pure (7:1-3). It can not be taken out of the land of Israel (2:17). Indeed, the gemara learns from another verse in our parsha (Bamidbar 18:7) that eating trumah may considered a kind of “avodah”, or Divine service (Pesachim 73a). Trumah should also be given from the choicest produce (Rambam Trumot 5:1). It is only logical that something which is set aside for HaShem should be highly sanctified.
Maaser, on the contrary, has no sanctity. Therefore, it may be eaten by anyone, and there is no problem if the produce or the person is tamei (Rambam Maaser 1:2). This is the salary of the Leviim, and they should be able to use it as they see fit.
2. Trumah has no designated quantity, and according to Torah law, even a single grain of wheat exempts the entire silo (Kiddushin 58b). And even though the Sages gave a required amount, this amount must not be precisely measured; so even according to Rabbinic law there is no exact amount (Rambam Trumot 3:4).
Since HaShem has no need of our produce, it is logical that this symbolic elevation should have no required quantity.
Whereas the very name of maaser (tithe) indicates that the exact quantity is part of its essence – as befits a salary, which should be carefully defined.
4. The Taz commentary on Yoreh Deah (s.k. 1:17) makes a surprising, and controversial, assertion: While slaughtering an animal is a mitzva only if we want to eat the animal (what we call a “matir” or permitting mitzva), separating trumah is an independent obligation. While this may refer to tithes as well, the plain meaning seems to be limited to trumah. (Rashi on Gittin 47b explicitly states that maaser is a “matir”; he seems to imply that trumah also is in this category.) The Taz’s assertion would make sense according to the distinction we have made. Maaser is a kind of “income tax”; if we eat, the Levi has to eat as well. But trumah is a special acknowledgment that HaShem is responsible for our crop; this could be obligatory even if we don’t want to eat.
Rabbi Meir HAS JUST COMPLETED writing a monumental companion to Kitzur Shulchan Aruch which beautifully presents the meanings in our mitzvot and halacha.
Rabbi Meir authors a popular weekly on-line Q&A column, "The Jewish Ethicist", which gives Jewish guidance on everyday ethical dilemmas in the workplace. The column is a joint project of the JCT Center for Business Ethics, Jerusalem College of Technology - Machon Lev; and Aish HaTorah. You can see the Jewish Ethicist, and submit your own questions, at www.jewishethicist.com or at www.aish.com.