We are accustomed to saying that we give terumah 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 terumah 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 terumah which the Levi gives from his own maaser, we read: “You also shall separate the terumah of Hashem from all your tithes which you take from the children of Israel, and you shall give of it the terumah of Hashem to Aharon the Kohen” (Bamidbar 18:28).
The gemara expresses this idea by saying that the Kohanim receive their terumah “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 terumah and maaser can be understood as expressions of this difference of purpose between these two agricultural gifts. Here are a few examples:
1. Terumah is sanctified, and can only be eaten by Kohanim (Rambam Trumot 6:1), only when they are pure and when the terumah 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 terumah may considered a kind of “avodah”, or Divine service (Pesachim 73a). Terumah 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. Terumah 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.
3. Even a Kohen has to give terumah from his own produce – though he may eat it himself afterwards. This is logical since this gift is given to Hashem.
A Levi must also give maaser on his own produce, but the Rambam writes that this is only for a specific reason: because he has to give trumat maaser, which is itself a kind of terumah, on the maaser (Rambam Maaser 1:3). The implication is that were it not for the trumat maaser, there would be no need for the Levi to give maaser (Drisha YD 331:20).
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 terumah is an independent obligation. While this may refer to tithes as well, the plain meaning seems to be limited to terumah. (Rashi on Gittin 47b explicitly states that maaser is a “matir”; he seems to imply that terumah 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 terumah is a special acknowledgment that Hashem is responsible for our crop; this could be obligatory even if we don’t want to eat.
Rabbi Asher Meir is the author of the book Meaning in Mitzvot, distributed by Feldheim. The book provides insights into the inner meaning of our daily practices, following the order of the 221 chapters of the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.