In the aftermath of the Korach rebellion the Torah describes various tithes that are to be given to the Kohanim and Leviim. I would like to focus this shiur on certain aspects of trumot and maasrot.
The Rambam and Ramban have two different debates concerning trumah and maaser. One revolves around the question of whether to consider the separation of the tithe as one mitzvah while counting the actual delivering of the tithe to its rightful owner as another independent mitzvah, or to count both elements as one unified mitzvah. (For more on this debate please click here where we discussed the significance of the dual aspect of these mitzvoth.
The second debate revolves around the passuk in this week’s parsha describing how to tithe. “Me Kol Chelbo” (Bamidbar 18:29) is the requirement, which is best translated as “from the best” (the word “chelev” is “fat” and until very recently fat was closely associated with “good” as in the “fat of the land” in our “low fat” society the metaphor seems a bit awkward).
We are instructed to give the best part of the produce to the Kohen or Levi as the case may be. The stress on this issue is quite natural. The farmer who has invested so much time and effort in growing the crops and is informed that before partaking of them he must donate a certain portion to the Kohen and Levi would tend to offer them the “leftovers” and the less desirable parts, saving the really good parts for himself and his family. The Torah commands us not to do such a thing but rather to offer them the highest quality sections of the produce.
The Ramban in his list of mitzvoth that he believes should be counted in the 613, and have been “forgotten” by the Rambam list this as a mitzvah. The Ramban writes:
“The ninth mitzvah that was left out is to tithe from the better produce, or at least from that of equal quality to the rest but not to take from the poor quality produce”.
The peculiar thing about the position of the Ramban is his counting this as a separate mitzvah. We would have assumed, as we will see soon that many explained the Rambam in this way, that this is not an independent mitzvah but rather a detail in the process of fulfilling the general mitzvah of tithing. When ones takes trumah one should take the best.
The Ramban addresses this issue at the end of his comments and claims that it must be counted independently because if an individual did not comply with this rule his fulfillment of the mitzvah of trumah is unaffected. In other words if our farmer decided to ignore the Torah’s instructions and actually did donate the poor quality produce he has fulfilled his obligation vis a vis the mitzvah of trumah. This would indicate, says the Ramban, that the obligation of “high quality” is a separate mitzvah and is to be counted as such.
The classic commentaries on the Sefer Hamitzvot explain why the Rambam choose not to count this as an independent mitzvah. According to most the Rambam is in agreement as to the importance of this aspect of trumah, however he does not see it as an independent unit. The mitzvah of taking trumah carries with it the obligation to take quality. (Concerning the proof of the Ramban that “bedieved” one could fulfill the mitzvah of trumah without this, the commentaries point out many other instances where we are told to do mitzvoth in a certain way, yet “bedieved” we can suffice with a lower level of fulfillment).
The position of the Rambam highlights a very interesting concept, the integration of the quality of a mitzvah into its very definition. While according to the Ramban there are two distinct units, the basic mitzvah and the enhanced version, the Rambam see an integrated, full force qualitative mitzvah.
This concept is found elsewhere in the Rambam as pointed out by Rav Chaim Soloveichik concerning the mitzvah of Brit Milah. The Gemara defines the minimum amount of the orlah that must be removed in order to fulfill the mitzvah and in addition an added part that should be removed but if left on “bedieved” it is acceptable. The Rambam rules that if the additional parts are not removed at the very same time as the initial orlah is removed there is no value in later removing the additional parts. In other words we are told to do the mitzvah in its fullest form and the qualitative element integrates into the initial act there is no such thing as doing the mitzvah and later putting the “icing on the cake”.
The Torah, I believe is defining for us not simply what to do, tithe, but as well how do to it, take from the best and most sought after parts. The act of giving trumah and maser is not to be seen as a tax that one is forced into giving (as the traditional saying goes that in this world one cannot avoid neither death nor the payment of taxes), we are meant to feel a true sense of giving and choose the most dear parts to give.
This principle helps us explain another interesting Halacha that appears in the parsha. The farmer is meant to give approximately 2% to the Kohen as trumah and 10% to the Levi as maser. In turn the Levi is meant to give from that which he has received 10% to the Kohen as trumat maser.
In the end of the day the Levi receives actually 9% of the entire harvest while the Kohen receives 3% (2% from the farmer and 1% from the Levi). This being the cases wouldn’t it be easier for the farmer to directly give the Kohen the 3% and give the Levi 9%? Why the complicated transfer via the Levi?
Based on what we have discussed the answer seems clear. It is imperative for the Levi to give as well, had he received less and not given anything to the Kohen the end result would be the same but the process would have been radically different and would have suffered the loss of the element of giving.
The mitzvoth of trumah and maser teach us not only what to do but how to do mitzvoth, completely and in the fullest manner that we can while investing all of ourselves in avodat Hashem.