Rabbi Eliezer MelamedThe writer is Head of Yeshivat Har Bracha and a prolific author on Jewish Law, whose works include the series on Jewish law "Pininei Halacha" and a popular weekly column "Revivim" in the Besheva newspaper. His books "The Laws of Prayer" "The Laws of Passover" and "Nation, Land, Army" are presently being translated into English. Other articles by Rabbi Melamed can be viewed at: www.yhb.org.il/1
The Vision of Torah Study
Torah study is fundamental to Israel’s existence. It connects the Jewish nation to God and to Divine values. Torah study is the key to Israel’s progress towards geula (Redemption), because in the Torah we learn about the destiny of Israel and the world, and of the mitzvoth – the paths to achieve this.
Over two months ago, I began trying to outline the vision of Torah study in the State of Israel. I will now attempt to continue this important challenge.
Ten Percent of the GDP was Dedicated for Torah Study
In order to maintain Torah observance in Israel, we are commanded to set aside terumot and ma’aserot (tithes) and other gifts to the Kohanim and Levi’im, so they can study and teach Torah to the Jewish nation.
Since in the past, agriculture comprised over ninety percent of the GDP (Gross Domestic Product), and the gifts given to the Kohanim and Levi’im were slightly more than ten percent, we find that according to the Torah, ten percent of the GDP should be devoted to maintaining Torah in Israel. It can be estimated that the tribe of Levi and the Kohanim numbered roughly ten percent of the population, and thus lived, more or less, on an average standard of living.
Of course, there were Torah scholars from other tribes, but they worked in regular jobs – farming or livestock – and would review and deepen their learning as they worked. For indeed, all Torah learning in those times was oral with no books, and also, work in the fields then did not require so much attention. Thus, the Torah scholars were able to diligently engross themselves in Oral Torah study while working and their neighbors would also assist them, so they could be free to teach their students the Torah insights they had reached while working.
Only in a case when the community required them to be completely free of work – to serve as judges, interpreters of the law, or teachers – would the community members provide for their livelihood. Likewise, rich individuals would occasionally support Torah scholars financially, such as the agreement between Zevulun and Issachar.
However, the primary work of teaching Torah to both children and adults was predominantly the task of the Kohanim and Levi’im.
The Role of the Kohanim and Levi’im: Teaching Torah
Q: How do we know that the tithes were related to the role of the Kohanim and Levi’im teaching Torah?
A: The halakha is that one must give terumot and ma’asrot to Kohanim and Levi’im engaged in Torah, as explained in the Talmud:
“R. Samuel b. Nahmani said in the name of R. Jonathan: Whence do we know that one should not give any dues to a priest an ‘am ha-aretz’ (an uneducated Jew)? From the verse: ‘Moreover he commanded the people that dwelt in Jerusalem to give the portion of the priests and the Levites that they might hold fast to the law of the Lord’ (Divre Hayyamim II, 31:4) – whosoever holds fast to the law of the Lord has a portion, and whoever does not hold fast to the law of the Lord has no portion” (Chulin 130b).
Not only that, if the farmer chose to give terumot and ma’asrot to a Kohen or Levi ‘am ha-aretz’, they could sue him in court, forcing the Beit Din to require him to give his gifts to Torah scholars. Only in a case where there were no Kohanim or Levi’im who were Torah scholars, were the farmers obligated to give the gifts to Kohanim or Levi’im ‘amei ha-aretz’ (Tosafot).
Moreover, those priestly gifts that do not possess kedusha, such as the ze’roa, lechaim, and keyva (foreleg, cheeks and maw) that are given to Kohanim, can also be given to a bat Kohen (the daughter of a Kohen) married to a Yisrael. The ‘Aruch HaShulchcan’ wrote that even if a Kohen is present, if the bat Kohen is married to a Yisrael who is a Torah scholar, it is preferable to give her the gifts so she can support her Torah-learning husband, than to a Kohen ‘am-ha’aretz’ (Y.D., 61:35).
To Learn and to Teach
Let us not think that the Kohanim and Levi’im studied Torah for their own purposes, because the main objective of studying Torah is in order to teach. In the narrowest capacity, a person learns in order to teach his own children. The more Torah one learns, the greater his obligation is to teach it to others. As our Sages have said: “He who learns in order to teach will be given the opportunity to learn and teach” (Avot 4:6).
But if one learns only for himself, even his own learning will not be successful, because the essence of the Torah is chesed (benevolence), and its aim is to shower good and blessing upon all.
Moreover, the mitzvah of Talmud Torah is written in the Torah as a command to teach Torah, as it is written: “And you shall teach them to your sons” (Deuteronomy 11:19), and our Sages interpreted this to mean that students are also called ‘sons’. Thus, the primary objective of the mitzvah to study Torah is learning and teaching alike.
Ma’aser Kesafim is Designed for the Maintenance of Torah and Education
In addition to the mitzvah of setting aside of terumot and ma’aserot, there is also a mitzvah to set aside ma’aser kesafim (a money tithe) from any profits (Ta’anit 9a; S.A., Y.D. 249:1). Some authorities are of the opinion that this mitzvah stems from the Torah, while others say it is rabbinical in nature.
Since, as a result of the destruction and exile, the essential mitzvah of terumot and ma’aserot were cancelled, ma’aser kesafim became the basis for maintaining Torah and education among the Jewish nation. As our Sages said in the Midrash: “Aseir te'aser”, set aside a tithe and you will ‘te’asher’ (become wealthy), set aside a tithe so you will not be lacking. This is a hint to ‘mafrisei yamim’ (merchant traders, a play on the word l’hafreesh, meaning ‘to set aside’) to reserve a tithe for those laboring in Torah study” (Tanchuma, Re’eh 18). This is also explained in the book ‘Ahavat Chesed’ by Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaKohen from Radin, the Chofetz Chaim.
Yisrael’im Chose Which Kohen or Levi to Give Their Tithes
An important element in the laws of terumot, ma’aserot and other priestly gifts is that a Yisrael had the right to decide to whom he gives his gifts, provided they are Kohanim and Levi’im engaged in Torah. As it is written:
“The sacred offerings of each individual remain his own property” (Numbers 5:10) – he has the right to give the gifts to any priest he desires (Rambam, Terumot 12:15).
The distribution of the gifts was meant to be done in a dignified manner. Therefore, it is forbidden for a Kohen to ask a Yisrael to give him in particular his gifts. And certainly, it is forbidden for a Kohen to help a Yisrael in his work, so he will chose to give him his gifts.
It is also forbidden for a Yisrael to give gifts in a way that demeans the Kohanim and Levi’im, such as giving each one a very small portion, because ‘they eat and drink from the table of God, and these gifts are given to Him’ (Rambam, Terumot 12:17-19).
The Results on the Ground
The right given each Jew to decide who to give his gifts required the Kohanim and Levi’im to dedicate themselves in their sacred work within their community, so that the members would want to give them their gifts on their own. The relationship with the Kohen and Levi was personal. Those who taught Torah to the children and adults, and provided beneficial advice and wisdom, merited receiving people’s priestly gifts. On the other hand, a person who was estranged from his community, or did not treat them hospitably, or was arrogant, received similar treatment at the time of distribution. And someone who was lazy and refused to teach the children Torah, suffered deprivation.
Nevertheless, a situation where one Kohen received all the terumot and others went lacking never occurred. This is because the terumot and gifts were edibles, and although the Kohan and Levi were permitted to exchange them for other products, they were not allowed to sell them on a serious basis. Therefore, even if a popular Kohen received several terumot, he could not open a store and sell them. The fruits he received beyond the needs of his family would have to be distributed to his fellow Kohanim, otherwise the food would spoil. Consequently, after the well-liked Kohanim received all they needed, there was no reason to give them additional gifts, and the Yisrael’im would have to search for other Kohanim and Levi’im to give their gifts.
Still, the devoted Kohanim lived without worries, seeing as they were always first to receive their needs and the Yisrael’im sought them out to give their gifts. However, the less hospitable Kohanim, who did not make an effort to teach the children properly were the last ones to receive gifts, and as a result, got less. And in years when the harvest was relatively small and there was not enough terumot to support all the Kohanim and Levi’im, only those desired by the community received gifts.
The Significance of the Order of Distribution
This order of distribution created a personal connection between the Yisrael’im – the men of actions – and the Kohanim and Levi’im, the students and teachers of Torah, and required Torah teachers to be attentive and dedicated to their community.
When the Jewish nation switched to maintaining the Torah through ma’aser kesafim, Torah students and teachers became even more dependent on the members of their communities. This is because the obligation of ma’aser kesafim is less severe, and when the b’nei Torah did not fulfill their role properly, the practical people chose not to give them ma’aser kesafim at all, or to give it to other mitzvah needs.
If the Torah’s purpose was that practical people should maintain Torah students without them being committed to serve their communities, then the Torah should have commanded everyone give ma’aser to a general treasury that would distribute stipends to Torah students.
The Lesson for Our Times
Therefore, an important foundation can be learned from these halakhot for our times. Students and teachers of Torah and practical people must be connected, with those engaged in learning, teaching Torah to the general public and providing people’s lives with spiritual meaning and value, while the practical people support them financially, motivating them with their questions and needs. For the Torah is not merely an abstract idea – it is a Divine teaching for life. The greater and deeper understanding those engaged in study have about the practical questions of daily life, the more capable they are of drawing deep and true enlightenment from the Torah, which in consequence, showers blessing and goodness in practical life, as well. And thus, the lives of each and every individual, and that of the public in general, are elevated.
Next week, God willing, we will continue learning from these principles positive advice for our lives in the State of Israel today.
This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew.