The Torah set a goal for Kohanim and Levi’im – to teach Torah, and educate the public * The ideal was for the firstborn to be sanctified, so each household would have a spiritual Torah member, but we have not yet reached that level * The Kohanim and the Levi’im established the model of the ‘garin Torani’: scattered throughout the country, but living in groups * The Israelites supported the Kohanim and Levi’im who studied Torah, and they in turn strove to teach the nation in a suitable manner * Israelites could also teach, supplementary to the stable foundation of the tribe of Levi * In our times, ma’aser kesafim for Torah scholars implements the goal of terumot and ma’asrot
The Continuation of Torah in Israel
Q: Why did the Torah grant special status to the Kohanim (priests) and Levi’im (Levites), and command us to give them terumot and ma’aser rishon (tithes)? Isn’t this discrimination towards the rest of the people?
A: These are not free gifts given to the Kohanim and Levi’im, but rather gifts that are meant to enable them to be Torah scholars and educators among the Jewish nation, as the Torah says: “They shall therefore teach your law to Jacob, and your Torah to Israel” (Deuteronomy 33:10). The Torah also says: “If you are unable to reach a decision in a case involving capital punishment, litigation, leprous marks, or any other case where there is a dispute in your territorial courts, then you must set out and go up to the place that God your Lord shall choose. You must approach the Levitical priests and other members of supreme court that exists at the time” (Deuteronomy 17:8-9).
Kohanim and Levi’im Not Engaged in Torah
Since the goal of terumot for the Kohanim and ma’aser to the Levi’im is to assist them in their spiritual role, it is a mitzvah to give these gifts to Kohanim and Levi’im ‘Talmidei Chachamim‘ (Torah scholars) who study and teach Torah. As King Hezekiah commanded: “Moreover, he commanded the people who dwelt in Jerusalem to give the portion of the priests and the Levites that they might adhere firmly to the Torah of the Lord” (Chronicles II, 8-9).
The poskim (Jewish law arbiters) disagreed as to what should be done in a place where there are no Kohanim or Levi’im engaged in Torah: some say that it is forbidden to give priestly gifts to a Kohen who is an ‘am ha’aretz’, i.e., someone uneducated in Torah; the opinion of most Rishonim is that it is indeed a mitzvah to give the priestly gifts to Kohanim and Levi’im who are Torah scholars, but if there aren’t any Torah scholars present, it is a mitzvah to give them to the uneducated Kohanim and Levi’im, and one is not obligated to go out of his way to give them to Kohanim and Levi’im who are ‘Talmidei Chachamim’ (Tosafot, Ramban, Rashba, Ran, Ritva, and Meiri, Tractate Chulin 130b, as well as being codified in the Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 61:7).
In order for the Kohanim and Levi’im to be spread throughout the Land of Israel and available for their spiritual task – studying and teaching Torah – the Torah determined that they would not be given an inheritance in the Land, rather, each tribe would allot them cities within their own inheritance. As the Torah says: “God spoke to Moses… give orders to the Israelites, and have them give the Levites residential cities from their hereditary holdings. Also provide the Levites suburbs around their cities. The cities shall be their residence, while the suburbs shall be for their animals, property, and other amenities… the total number of cities that you shall give the Levites shall be 48 cities…more from a larger holding, and fewer from a smaller one. Each tribe shall therefore give the Levites cities in proportion to the hereditary property that it has been given” (Numbers 35:1-8). In other words, the Kohanim and Levi’im received places to live, and even plots for their belongings, but they did not have enough land to grow their own food, but were nourished by the terumot and ma’asrot they received from B’nei Yisrael. As the Torah says: “The Levitical priests and the entire tribe of Levi shall not have a territorial portion with the rest of Israel, and they shall therefore eat God’s fire offerings and their hereditary gifts. Since God shall be their heritage, as He promised them, they shall not have any territorial heritage among their brethren” (Deuteronomy 18:1-2).
And this is exactly what B’nei Yisrael did in the days of Yehoshua, as it is stated: “And the children of Israel gave to the Levites out of their inheritance, at the commandment of the Lord, these cities and their pasture lands…” (Yehoshua 21:3). Over the generations, the leaders of Israel designated additional cities to the Kohanim and Levi’im as needed, for example, the cities of Nov and Anatot.
The Vision of the Firstborn: A Kohen in Every Family
Initially, all bechorim (first-borns) were meant to be Kohanim, so that each extended family would have a distinguished member – firstborns – whose task was to engage in Torah, teach, and serve in the Temple, and thus, the entire nation would be connected to the worship of God and spiritual matters. But after the firstborns participated in the Sin of the Golden Calf as well, they fell from their exalted level, and in their stead, the tribe of Levi who did not participate in the sin, were chosen and sanctified. One can learn from this that the idea of the birthright of the firstborn is still too lofty for us, and therefore, instead of the firstborn Kohanim influencing the public at large, the secular life of general society would have an influence them, and annul their spiritual uniqueness. In order to create a group of Torah scholars and educators responsible for religious observance among the nation of Israel, they need to belong to a tribe that is entirely engaged in matters of holiness. This became apparent in the Sin of the Golden Calf when the firstborns participated in sin, whereas the Levi’im, members of Moshe Rabbeinu’s tribe, stood in the breach against the sinners.
The Model for ‘Garinim Torani’im’
It is possible to learn from the Levite cities scattered throughout the country, an example and precedence for the ‘garinim Torani’im’ (Torah-based groups of idealistic, religious individuals and families, who settle in underdeveloped communities to help build up and strengthen the community through social and religious programming) which, on the one hand, should be scattered throughout the country, while on the other hand, needs to preserve themselves as a group, in order to strengthen each other in their sacred work, which at times can be difficult and fraught with trials and tribulations.
Parenthetically, an important piece of advice for the heads of the ‘garinim Torani’im’: in addition to educating towards Torah and mitzvot, they should set a goal for themselves to attract first-rate mathematics and English teachers to the schools under their influence, because these subjects are beneficial for acquiring respectable professions, and thus, their contribution and influence will be well-rounded, and will find pleasure in the eyes of both God, and man.
The Privilege to Choose a Kohen and Levi
Every Jew had the privilege to choose which Kohen and Levi he would give his gifts to. This privilege created a personal connection between the Israelites and the Kohanim and the Levi’im, and compelled the Kohanim to devote themselves to their sacred work among their communities, so that the members of the community would want to give them their gifts. Thus, a Kohen or Levy who went out of his way to teach Torah to children and adults, and the members of his community benefited from his good advice and resourcefulness, was given preference in receiving their gifts. On the other hand, a Kohen or Levy who alienated himself from the community – belittling those who worked for a living, claiming everyone should study in kollel, or refused to recite a “mi she’berach” (a public prayer or blessing for an individual or group, most often recited in synagogue when the Torah is being read) for young men enlisting in the army, or were lazy and did not teach Torah – they received similar treatment at the time of distribution of the gifts.
Nevertheless, there was no fear that the Kohanim or Levi’im that the public loved and respected for their wisdom and dedication would become overly wealthy while their friends would starve, because the gifts were food, and after the Kohanim and Levi’im received all their needs in abundance, there was no point in giving them more gifts that their family could not eat. In such a situation, it was preferable for the owner of the fruit to seek out other, more available Kohanim and Levi’im to create a spiritual and educational bond with those to whom they choose to give gifts. Thus, a continuous relationship was established between all Israelites and all the Kohanim and Levi’im, with the devoted Kohanim and Levi’im given preference in receiving all their needs abundantly, while those who were less affable, failing to make an effort to teach the students well, received fewer gifts. And in difficult years when the crops were scarce and there wasn’t enough gifts to sustain all the Kohanim and Levi’im, those who did not serve the members of their communities properly, suffered from scarcity.
Did Israelites also Teach?
In addition to the fact that the tribe of Levi was chosen to be responsible for Torah study and teaching in Israel, any Israelite also wishing to do so was of course entitled to devote his life to Torah – to study, and to teach (Rambam Shemittah and Yovel 13:13). Israelites wishing to do so had to curtail work in their fields and live modestly in order to have time to study Torah. Most probably, those choosing to do so possessed outstanding talent, diligence and virtue, and consequently, merited attaining higher levels of Torah knowledge, above and beyond the average member of the tribe of Levi, and as a result, many of them served as members of the courts and the Sanhedrin. Occasionally, their families would assist them with their livelihood, similar to the agreement between Zevulun and Issachar, and sometimes the public paid them unemployment benefits so they could dedicate their time to teaching or sitting in judgement. Nonetheless, the important role of the tribe of Levi remained, for they were given the overall responsibility for Torah observance in Israel, educating the young and older children, setting times for classes with adults, establishing peace between man and his fellow neighbor, and between husband and wife, providing emotional relief to the needy, and rehabilitating murderers and criminals. Beyond this solid foundation, the Israelites who devoted themselves to the Torah added an important element of magnifying and enhancing the Torah, in case law, in education, and in the enrichment of social life in all fields in which the members of the tribe of Levi were involved.
‘Ma’aser Kesafim’ – The Continuation of Tithes
In the distant past, more than 90% of the GNP was from agriculture and cattle, and as a result, terumot and ma’asrot from vegetation, first born animals, the zeroah, le’chaim, and keyvah (foreleg, cheeks, and maw of all non-sanctified, ritually slaughtered domestic animals), and reshit HaGez (the first shearing of the sheep’s wool) sustained Israel’s Torah scholars and educators. In the course of time, Israel’s livelihood expanded to industry and commerce, and other fields as well, and then, just as the Torah stipulated that Israelites give gifts in the sum of between 10% (ma’aser) to 20% (chomesh) to the Kohanim and Levi’im, our Sages determined the setting aside of ‘ma’aser kesafim’ (giving one-tenth of one’s wealth to tzedakah) as a medium measure, and ‘chomesh’ from one’s wealth as a good measure.
The Purpose of ‘Ma’aser Kesafim’
The main purpose of ‘ma’aser kesafim’ is to support Torah scholars and educators. In other words, the halakha is that in normal circumstances most of one’s ma’aser should be directed to supporting Torah scholars who study in order to teach and guide the people in the ways of Torah and mitzvot, morality, and derech eretz (common decency). However, in times when many poor people are in need of bread and clothing, the majority of one’s ma’aser kesafim should be allocated for the needs of the poor, and in such a situation, it then serves as a substitute for the mitzvot of ‘leket, shikhhah, and pe’ah’ (gleanings, forgotten produce, and the corners of the field), ma’aser ani (the pauper’s tithe), and tzedaka (charity).
It can be said that ideally, ma’aser is given as a preventive medicine. By way of the teachings and guidance of the Torah, the value of work and proper economic planning becomes common practice – young adults learn a viable profession, people work diligently and resourcefully, and as a result, blessing increases, there are less poor people, and thus, funds from tzedaka above and beyond ma’aser kesafim would be adequate for them. But when preventive medicine is ineffective, and Torah scholars fail to educate the public to work diligently and develop the economy properly, the majority of ma’aser must be devoted to the less fortunate themselves – namely, the poor, sick, and the rest of the needy.
This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew. Other interesting, informative, and thought-provoking articles by Rabbi Melamed can be found at: