The Mishnayot studied contain an assortment of laws relating to ma’aser sheni. The question that will be dealt with in this article is whether something can be learnt about the nature of ma’aser sheni from these laws.
Fundamentally, when dealing with the nature of trumot and ma’asrot they must first be divided into two categories – trumot and ma’asrot. This basic division is found in the Torah in Parashat Korach (Bamidbar 18: 8-21) where it discusses the commandment to separate trumot and ma’asrot:
Hashem announced to Aharon: I have given you responsibility for My elevated gifts. I am thus giving you all the sacred gifts of the Israelites as part of your anointment… The dedicated portion of oil, wine and grain that must initially be presented to Hashem is now given to you… To the descendants of Levi, I am now giving all the tithes in as an inheritance. This is in exchange for their work, the service that they perform in the Communion Tent.
The p’sukim appear to indicate that the ma’aser is effectively the payment for the levi’im’s work. When discussing trumah on the other hand, despite the fact that the Kohanim also ‘work’ in the Beit ha’Mikdash, the trumah is not described as a payment.
Differences in the prescribed quantities of trumot and ma’asrot also reflect the above described distinction. For ma’aser a pragmatic instruction is given as to the required quantity – 10%. Conversely, the Torah does not provide a measure for trumah and (on a biblical level) one can give as much or as little as they desire.
What then is the aim of trumah? Rav Aharon Lichtenstein explains that trumah is one of a select few things described as “reishit” (first). The idea represented by this group is that one should ‘give’ the first portion to Hashem prior to sitting down and eating. Consequently, trumah does not serve a practical or financial purpose, but rather an educational one.
There are other laws that are understandable after this distinction. An can eat ma’aser rishon once the Levi has received it; after all, it is his property. Trumah (as well as bikurim and trumat ma’aser) on the other hand is kadosh and a non-kohen cannot eat it.
How does one then understand ma’aser sheni? On the one hand it appears that it should be amongst those thing that are ‘given’ to Hashem, yet on the other hand it has a fixed amount - 10% - suggesting that it is similar to those “practical” gifts.
The answer may be found in the laws learnt in the third and fourth perakim. There we find the law that if the owner redeems his ma’aser sheni produce he must add one fifth of its value. Many have understood this requirement as a guarantee that the owner will not undervalue the produce when redeeming it. There therefore appears to be a practical interest that enough money will be used to redeem the produce. Return to the original question – what is the reason for this practical interest?
If one looks at the p’sukim found in parashat Re’eh (Devarim 12) it appears that the entire aim of ma’aser sheni is that people have festive meals around Yerushalaim. So again, why the ‘pragmatic’ detail in the laws?
There are two points:
Firstly, there are economic considerations. During the three festivals when everyone comes to Yerushalaim there is a valid concern that there will be a short fall of food and the prices will inflate. If however, everyone brings ma’aser sheni fruit and money with them, this concern will be offset.
Secondly, it is desirable that people regularly visit the nation’s spiritual centre. The fixed measure of ma’aser sheni forced people to regularly come. The obligatory stay would clearly have the benefit of strengthening the spirituality of those guests.
It appears that this last reason is just as valid today with Yerushalaim and Yisrael being the spiritual centre. Consequently today, even without ma’aser sheni, there is importance in visiting these places. In a similar manner, it is important to visit shuls and batei midrash which to a certain extent take the place of the Beit Ha’Mikdash in our time.
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