Bar-Ilan University 's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Re’eh 5764/ August 14, 2004

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan , Israel . A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University 's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University . Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il

 

 

 

Two Tithes, Two Aspects*

Rabbi Dr. Hayyim Burgansky

Department of Talmud

 

 

Several halakhic issues in Parashat Re’eh contradict other sources dealing with the same subjects.  Here we shall relate to one such contradiction.

In this week’s reading the Torah commands us about tithes (Deut. 14:22-23):

You shall set aside every year a tenth part of all the yield of your sowing that is brought from the field.  You shall consume the tithes of your new grain and wine and oil, and the firstlings of your herds and flocks, in the presence of the Lord your G-d, in the place where He will choose to establish His name, so that you may learn to revere the Lord your G-d forever.

Thus we see that here the law regarding tithes is as follows:  the owner is to bring it to the place that the Lord will choose and to eat it there, to teach him to revere the Lord his G-d. 

The commandment concerning tithes appears quite differently in Numbers, in the list of gifts to be given the Priests that appears in chapter 18 (verses 21-24):

And to the Levites I hereby give all the tithes in Israel as their share in return for the services that they perform, the services of the Tent of Meeting … for it is the tithes set aside by the Israelites as a gift to the Lord that I give to the Levites as their share.   Therefore I have said concerning them:   They shall have no territorial share among the Israelites.

The Contradiction

We see a contradiction between Parashat Re’eh and the passage in Numbers regarding two details of the commandment of tithes:  1)  In Parashat Re’eh the tithe is eaten by its owner, whereas in Numbers it is given to the Levite. [1]   2)  In Parashat Re’eh it is eaten in the place that the Lord will choose, and in Numbers it may be eaten by the Levites anywhere.

In other words, according to Numbers the tithe belongs to G-d, [2]   who gave it to the Levites.   When a person gives a tithe of the yield of his crops to the Levite he expresses his recognition that the yield was given him by Heaven and therefore belongs to the Lord, who commands us what to do with our/His yield.  The Lord grants the tithe to the tribe of His servants in compensation for their work for Him, and He turns the tithe into their allotment, a share which is more elevated than that received by the rest of the tribes of Israel.

According to Parashat Re’eh, a person acknowledges G-d’s bounty by eating the tithe before the Lord in the place He chooses.   In the language of the Talmud, the tithe is given mishulhan gavo’ah, “from the table of the Lord.” It is as if the person were a guest at G- d’s table, partaking of the tithe eaten by the members of His household.  Eating in a state of purity in the place chosen by G-d expresses the recognition that this is not a present that the owners set aside for themselves and the members of their household, rather it is a present from Heaven; for the person’s own share of his yield may be eaten anywhere and under any condition, in a state of purity and impurity alike. 

Two Aspects

What is signified by this contradiction between the two sources? [3]   The central thread connecting many of the commandments given in Parashat Re’eh is their relationship to the place that the Lord will choose, beginning with the proscription against sacrificing outside of the place chosen by G-d, stated at the beginning of this week’s reading, and continuing through the emphasis placed on the obligation to celebrate the festivals in the place that the Lord will choose, found at the end of this week’s reading.   Indeed, the existence of a fixed place that the Lord will choose for His dwelling introduces a major new idea, [4] one which is even difficult for us to grasp, since the Holy One, blessed be He, is greater than the world and the world cannot encompass Him, and His glory fills the entire earth.  King Solomon, when he inaugurated the Temple, recognized this and said:  “Even the heavens to their uttermost reaches cannot contain You, how much less this House that I have built” (I Kings 8:27).   And so it is, we are dealing with an unfathomable decree of the King:  the Holy One, blessed be He, Who is Omnipresent, chooses Himself a place in which to dwell, and causes His Presence to be in that place.

G-d in the World

One could say that the appearance of G-d’s Presence in the world has two contradictory aspects:   in one sense, His Presence is in everything, and He is close to all who seek Him sincerely wherever they may be.   In this respect of G-d being everywhere we are obligated to serve him in all places and all times, as we pray to Him in any place, as in the words of the prophet:  “For from where the sun rises to where it sets, My name is honored among the nations, and everywhere incense and pure oblation are offered to My name” (Malachi 1:11).  In the second respect, G-d has a geographical identification and He dwells in a specific spot, in the land of one of the tribes of Israel.   There, and only there, does a person stand before G-d, and only there can a person worship G-d through the sacrificial service.

This helps us understand the contradiction between the passages on tithes.  Insofar as a person finds himself facing G-d everywhere, a specific place does not have especial sanctified value.  In such a situation the recognition that the yield of one’s field belongs to G-d would find expression by giving the tithe to those who are chosen by G-d to serve Him.   Giving to the Levite is like giving to G-d; it is not dependent on a specific place, since anywhere that it might be eaten it would be eaten “in the presence of G-d.”  A certain extreme example of this can be seen in the wandering in the wilderness, where people wandered from place to place with the Glory of the Lord accompanying them at all times.  When they laid down to sleep the pillar of fire illumined the night, and when they arose the pillar of cloud hung over them; when they crossed the Lord, His hand would strike at them, and when they did His will, their clothes did not wear out nor did their feet swell.  Thus the tithe as it appears in Numbers, a tithe given to the Levite, expresses this aspect of the Lord’s presence.

From the second respect – there being a specific geographical identification for the dwelling-place of the Divine Presence – the Lord does not dwell everywhere, as it were, and the idea that the yield belongs to G-d is expressed by bringing the tithe to the place that the Lord chooses and eating it there in a state of ritual purity.   By bringing a tithe and eating it before the Lord a person fully expresses recognition that the yield belongs to G-d.  

This also reflects the reality in the land of Israel, where people go to sleep weary from their day’s work, and there is no pillar of fire to light up their night.  Their morning clouds are not the divine pillar of cloud, rather the source of their hope for rain; their food is obtained by the sweat of their brow and not by way of miracle, and when they act against G-d’s word their punishment comes in natural ways, without clear identification of the crime, the punishment and the one who punishes.  In this mundane existence there is a clearly-defined place where G-d reveals Himself to human beings, and it is there that the tithe mentioned in Parashat Re’eh is brought – a tithe of which the Levites do not partake and which is eaten by its owner right “before the Lord.”

Two Tithes

The Lord’s Torah is perfect, and when the written Torah sharpens the seemingly contradictory aspects, the Oral Torah resolves the contradiction in actual practice.  Thus, people are obliged by both tithes together, just as both aspects of G- d’s Presence exist at the same time:   every year a first tithe is set aside from the threshing floor for the Levite, thus proclaiming to the world that the Divine Presence of the Holy One, blessed be He, is in his midst at all times and all places; then a second tithe is set aside and brought to be eaten before the Lord, thereby declaring that the Holy One, blessed be He, caused His Presence to dwell in the place that He chose, in the territory of one of the tribes of Israel.

                                                                                                                                        

                                                                                                                                        



* What follows below is based on the methodology of distinctions developed by Rabbi Mordechai Breuer.   For a brief outline of this approach, see M. Breuer, Pirkei Mo’adot, Jerusalem 1989, pp. 11-22. A sample of Rabbi Breuer’s unique approach may also be read in English: “The Study of Bible and the Primacy of the Fear of Heaven”, Modern Scholarship in the Study of Torah, ed. Shalom Carmy, The Orthodox Forum Series, New Jersey 1996, pp.159-180.

[1] Especially notable here is the decline in the status of the Levite, a motif which occurs repeatedly throughout the book of Deuteronomy.   While in Numbers the Levites are given the tithe as a present from the Lord, the Lord giving them the tithe as their allotted portion, here the Levites are part of the group of indigent recipients of the second tithe, and they are granted it because they have no allotted portion in the land.  Indeed, the decline in the Levites’ status must be examined in its broader context, although this is not the place to do so; suffice it to say that their decline in status appears to have resulted from the journey through the wilderness having been completed, since the status of the Levites in the wilderness was primarily related to their carrying the camp of the Lord’s Presence within the Israelite encampment.  In contrast to the Levites, the status of the priests does not decline in Deuteronomy, and may actually even have strengthened in several respects.

[2] That the tithe belongs to G-d also follows from Leviticus 27:30-31:   “All tithes from the land, whether seed from the ground or fruit from the tree, are the Lord’s; they are holy to the Lord.   If anyone wishes to redeem any of his tithes, he must add one-fifth to them.”  It does not state there that the tithe is to be given to the Levite, but it is possible to redeem it the way sanctified gifts are redeemed.   Perhaps the commandment in Leviticus is a way of mediating between the commandments as stated in Numbers and Deuteronomy, but I shall not discuss this idea further here.

[3] Note that a similar contradiction exists between the passage on the firstlings of one’s livestock as presented in Numbers and as presented in this week’s reading.  In Numbers the firstlings are given to the priest, whereas in this week’s reading they are eaten by their owners before the Lord.  A comparison of the tithe to the firstling can be found in the beginning of this week’s reading   (Deut. 12:6), as well as in the passage on tithes (Deut. 14:23), except that the question of the firstlings is far more complex, and we shall not deal with it in depth here.  See D. Henschke, “Shiluah Avadim ve-Hakdashat ha- Bekhor,” Megadim 4 (Tishre 1988), pp. 9, 22.

[4] The contradiction described here first emerges in Parashat Terumah, with G-d’s command regarding the work on the Tabernacle.  See what the Sages had to say in Exodus Rabbah 34.1.   Also see my article, “Mizbah Adamah ve-Khruvei ha- Zahav,” Daf   Shavua on Parashat Terumah, 2000 (no. 329).