Terumah and Maaser

It is interesting to contrast the Chinukh’s description of terumah, the first gift taken from one’s produce, given to a kohein, with his description of ma’aser rishon, the tenth given to the levi’im.

Terumah, mitzvah #507:


משרשי המצוה, לפי שהדגן והתירוש והיצהר הן עיקר מחיתן של בריות, והעולם כולו להקדוש ברוך הוא הוא, על כן ראוי לאדם לזכור את בוראו על הברכה אשר ברכו ושיפריש קצת ממנו לשמו ברוך הוא, ויתננו למשרתיו שהם הכהנים העסוקים תמיד במלאכת שמים טרם יגע בו יד אדם ויהנה ממנו כלל. ומן היסוד הזה אמרו זכרונם לברכה שאפילו חטה אחת פוטרת את הכרי, כי זכירת האדנות על הדבר אין הפרש בין רב למעט. אמנם רבותינו זכרונם לברכה הוסיפו בדבר לתת בו שיעור ראוי כדי שיתעורר לב האדם בענין יותר…

From the roots of the mitzah: Because grain, vine and olive crops are the essence of what keeps people alive. The whole world is the Holy One’s (blessed be He). Therefore it is appropriate for a person to remember his Creator for the blessing which he blessed him, and separate a little of it for His sake (blessed be He), and to give it to his servants — which are the kohanim who are constantly busy with the work of heaven — before anyone’s hand touches it and gets any benefit from it. From this foundation, [our Sages] of blessed memory said that even one wheat stalk can permit an entire stack. Remembering the Mastery [of G-d] with something makes no difference whether it is a lot or a little. However, our Rabbis of blessed memory added in one thing to give it a [minimum] appropriate amount in order to awaken people’s hearts on this subject…

Terumah is  described as something between man and his Creator. In order to acknowledge that the crops come from Hashem and really belong to Him, we are obligated to give some to His representative, the kohein, before enjoying any ourselves. Torahitically, there is no amount that needs to be given because terumah is about the act of giving which is required .

Ma’aser rishon, mitzvah #395:


משרשי המצוה, לפי ששבט הלוי בחר השם בתוך אחיו לעבודתו תמיד במקדשו, על כן היה מחסדו עליהם לתת להם מחיתם דרך כבוד, כי כן יאות למשרתי המלך שתהיה ארוחתם מזומנת להם על ידי אחרים שיכינוה להם ולא יצטרכו הם ליגע בדבר זולתי בעבודת המלך היקרה. ואף על פי שהם היו שנים עשר שבטים, ולפי חלוקה שוה היה ראוי שיטלו חלק אחד משנים עשר, גם זה היתרון להם לכבודם, כי מהיותם מבית המלך ראוי שתהיה חלקם יתרה על כולם. ויתרון גדול הוא שיבא להם חלק העשירי נקי מכל הוצאת הקרקע. והמחיה משרתי האל בממונו ברכת השם יתברך תנוח עליו בכל אשר יש לו, וזהו אומרם זכרונם לברכה [אבות פ"ג מי"ג], מעשרות סייג לעושר….

From the roots of the mitzvah: Because the tribe of Levi was chosen by Hashem from among his brothers to serve Him constantly in His sanctuary. Therefore, He bestowed a kindness on them to give them their livelihood in a respectful manner. For this is what’s appropriate for the servants of the king, that theyir meals would be prepared for them by others and they would not have to think about anything except the precious service of the King. Even though there were twelve tribes, and by equal distribution they should have gotten one twelfth [rather than a full tenth], this extra too is for their honor. Because their being of the King’s household makes it appropriate for their portion to be greater than everyone else’s. An even greater extra is that this one tenth portion is given to them without any fieldwork. One who provides for the servants of G-d with his money, a blessing of Hashem yisbarakh rests on him in whatever he did. This is what [our Sages] of blessed memory said, “tithing [maaseros] is a fence around wealth [osher]…”

Ma’aser is about supporting leviim, so that they have no tasks other than serving their King. It is therefore about the food given, and has a set amount — one tenth — as befitting the dignity of their role. Unlike terumah and its acknowledgement of the Source of all crops, ma’aser is an interpersonal mitzvah.

We can also use this distinction to explain why leviim can forgive the debt of their maaser, but a kohein can not do the same for terumah. Terumah isn’t the kohein‘s, he is eating “from the King’s table”. The point is the farmer or buyer’s need to give, not on the recipient.

Similarly, we can also suggest that this is why terumah is given before ma’aser. It serves a similar role to berakhos. Until we acknowledge Hashem’s role in creating the crop, it is not ours to give to the levi’im.

One is about acknowledging G-d, and the primary gift is the giving itself. The other is about supporting those who serve Him, and therefore about the food they require. Two similar seeming mitzvos that are at their root, very different things.

R’ Dr Eliezer Ehrenpreis z”l

So there I was, first day of calculus class, and the professor, Dr Leon Ehrenpreisz”l hands out a xerox of a page of gemara. The blatt is Sukkah 8a, a conversation of the minimum size of a sukkah, and what it would mean for someone who makes a circular sukkah – do we need to match the diameter of the circle to the length of the smallest square, does the sukkah have to large enough to encompass the smallest square, or a position in the middle, that it be the same in area? In discussing this last position, the gemara explains that the area must be 3*r*r, the limit of approximating πr2 that is “close enough” for halakhah.

Tosafos then set out to prove that given that the circumference of a circle is π times the diameter (2πr), this would be the area of the circle. These diagrams are reproduced from the Tosafos as it appears in the Vilna Shas.

  1. In the top left, we see the circle filled with co-centric strings. The outer string must be πd = 2πr long, since it’s the outside of the circle.
  2. We then cut the strings from one edge to the middle, as denoted by the white radius.
  3. Unwrap the strings, producing the triangle on the right. This triangle’s rightmost string is the old 2πr string.
  4. Now cut the strings from the obtuse point down the middle, again, as denoted by the white line. This will produce two right triangles, of the same area as the first one. Each triangle has a horizontal side of r, and a vertical side, half that long strong, of πr.
  5. Rearranging the right triangles, we get the rectangle shown in the bottom left. The rectangle’s short side is the side we already identified as being r wide, and the long side is πr.
  6. The area of the rectangle is thus r*πr =πr2, and since that’s the string we started with, that means the area of the original circle must be πr2 as well.

However, Dr Ehrenpreis noted,  this proof isn’t what a contemporary mathematician would consider rigorous. Rather than strings of finite width, what would happen if we use ever skinnier “strings” and progressively approached the limit of  an infinite number of them, each of zero width..

And that’s how Dr Ehrenpreis introduced the notion of limits, with which he began teaching calculus in earnest.

But to the man who also worked as Rabbi Eliezer Ehrenpreis, there was much less value to math without connecting it to Torah. Secular and knowledge as one seamless whole — an example of a life lived with Torah im Derekh Eretz.

He gave a course titled “Modern Scientific and Mathematical Concepts in the Babylonian Talmud”, where we explored topics like how the machloqes about whether Adam was created as a newborn or at the same point of development as a 20 yr old could explain debates about the international date line. (Was the sun created at dawn or at noon over Jerusalem?) How using set theory and the notion of classes might explain the difference between doubts that are resolved by probability, and those considered gavu’ah. (A question that stuck with me so much, I eventually developed the ideas in this post. A different resolution.) Or how the question of the age of the universe is meaningless, since the physical constants — those concepts that divide the quantum uncertain world from the commonsensical one, the relativity that defines time itself and its speed of flow — the constants themselves were being created. And if the one constant called alpha, a ratio of most of the other fundamental constants of physics, was shrinking asymptotically to its current value until the revalation at Sinai (as implied by the medrash linking “the sixth day” to the sixth day of Iyyar, when we reached Mt Sinai), then it’s quite possible the rainbow wasn’t visible to the human eye until after the flood.

Dr Ehrenpreis was one of the five most famous mathematicians of the generation. He not only appeared regularly in the journals at age 77 in a field where you proverbially peak at 27, there were conferences held and journals published in his honor. A chair was inaugurated for him at Temple University. On Dr Claude Chevalley‘s Wikipedia page,  his having Dr Ehrenpreis as his PhD student in Princeton is among his listed accomplishments.

But we’re also speaking of a man who embraced Torah observance later in life back in a time when no one spoke of “kiruv“, “baalei teshuvah“, never mind “BTs”. He studied under Rabbi Yehudah Davis and then Rav Moshe Feinstein. Legend around YU had it that he received semikhah from Rav Moshe a mere 5 years after the first time he opened a gemara.

Meeting Rabbi Ehrenpreis might have posed a halachic problem: Do I say the berakah of “שנתן מחכמתו לבשר ודם — … Who gave from His Wisdom to flesh and blood”, the blessing made on meeting a superlative secular scholar? Or do I say the berakhah “שחלק מחכמתו ליראיו — Who apportioned from His Wisdom to those who have yir’ah of Him” being that this is one of the most brilliant minds I ever met who studied Torah? Do I say both — and if so, which comes first?

But in truth, the question wouldn’t have come up even if I thought of it. The berakhah is said when awestruck by someone’s wisdom. And Rabbi Ehrenpreis was too down to earth to leave anyone awestruck. This was also the man who ran in every NY Marathon from its inception in 1970 until he got too ill in 2007. Ran in 37 marathons — and completed all 37, holding a record for the oldest person to complete the marathon by a large margin.

Yes, he enjoyed discussing intellectual pursuits. He leined from the Torah with a precision and meticulousness that showed the same inclinations that made him successful in math. He more than enjoyed teaching, he had a deep-seated need to teach.

And that need to give wasn’t merely the ego of someone who knew he was more intelligent than the others in the room. It extended to his giving tzedaqah; Rabbi Ehrenpreis was the kind of man charities repeatedly honored. His Shabbos table constantly had guests. There was always someone in need of a place to stay borrowing a guest room.

But he would not talk math with another Jewish mathematician (regardless of religious affiliation) without the conversation ending up in both Torah and in catching up on what’s going on in their lives.  A world-class genius, yes. But he had no more problem finding what to speak about with his children who inherited that intellect as he did with his son who has Downs. And he could find what to say to the homeless person who sat next to him on the subway. The woman who cleaned the trash in his hospital was struck by how Rabbi Ehrenpreis would remember her son’s name and ask about him. Awestruck by Rabbi Ehrenpreis? Never in his presence.

Rabbi Dr Eliezer Ehrenpreis passed away An exemplar of Torah im Derekh Eretz, of chessed, of “accepting all people with a beautiful expression on the face” regardless of the events in his own life, of connecting to others. A Renaissance Man who was one of my heroes.

תהא נשמתו צרורה בצרור החיים
May his Soul be bound in the bond of life

Choosing Chumeros

As I write this, it’s a few hours before Rosh Chodesh Elul. For many people, a time for choosing chumeros, stringencies in those areas of our lives that could use that extra attention.

The Daf Yerushalmi Yomi recently learned Shevi’is 20a (in the Vilna edition) 7:20. The gemara is citing a Tosefta (Maaseros 1:2):

התני הסיאה והאיזוב והקורנס שהובילו לחצר אבל אם היתה שניי’ נכנסת לשלישית שלישית מששית לשביעית ששית הכא את מני לחוריה וכא את מני לקומיה אמר רבי יוסי שלישית וששית אע”פ שאין בהן מע”ש יש בהן מעשרות שביעית אין בה מעשר כלל לא כן אמר רבי אבהו בשם רבי יוחנן לית כאן מששית לשביעית ששית אלא שביעית מן ברשות בעלים ברם הכא ברשות עני הן מוטב ליתן ליה אחד בודאי ולא שנים בספק

Doesn’t it say in the [Tosefta], “Si’ah, hyssop and qornos [three herbs that general grow wild] that were brought into the yard: If they were [plants] of the second [year of the shemittah cycle] going into the third [and now they are brought into the yard], they are of the third year [in terms of tithing]. If they were from the sixth year going into the seventh [sabbatical] year, they have the law of the sixth.” — this [case] one counts to the later [the third year], and here one counts to the earlier [sixth] year???

Rabbi Yosi said: The third and sixth [years] even though they do not have maaser sheini [a tithe eaten by the owner but only in Jerusalem], they do have maaser [-- they have the tithe given to the poor]. The seventh year does not have maaser at all.

Didn’t Rabbi Avohu say the same in the name of Rabbi Yochanan? “From the sixth going into the seventh [ie sabbatical year] is not of the sixth year but of the seventh — that is only with respect to the control of the owners, however here it is about the control of the poor. It is better to give that one with certainty, that two give two [for the earlier and later year] in doubt.

After terumah is given to the kohanim, and maaser rishon, the first tenth, is given to the leviim, the second tenth has different dispositions depending on which year it is in the shemittah cycle. In the first, second, fourth and fifth years, it is eaten by the owner in Jerusalem. In the third and sixth years, it is given  to the poor. (In addition to the other parts of the crop which are given to the poor as well as the usual obligation of tzedaqah.) On the seventh, shemittah, year, the crops are holy, ownerless, and thus there is no tithing of any sort.

Here we have a plant that in general grows wild, and therefore isn’t subject to maaser. However, in this particular case the person takes the plant and allows it to finish growing in his vegetable patch. And a new year began in between Does the herb follow the year it was grown, or the year it became subject to the obligation? The shenuttah cycle is rabbinic at times when most Jews live outside of Israel, and thus the Sages had leeway as to how to label the years with respect to tithing. The Yerushalmi tells us that in order to avoid giving two kinds of maaser in doubt, the Tosefta rule stringently.

All of the above is by way of background. What I want to point out is their definition of stringency:

When in doubt whether to group something with the second year, and thus the maaser is part of a spiritual pilgrimage to Jerusalem, or with the third, and thus the maaser is given to the poor — “stringency” means giving to the poor. Similarly, if it’s between declaring the food sacred or giving it to the poor — give it to the poor.

When I posted a version of the above to Avodah (corrected off-list by REMT, thank you!) R’ Danniel Shoemann pointed me to a similar chumerah in Chagiga 3b (quoting Mishnah Yadayim 4:3). In sefer Bamidbar, we conquer the lands of Amon and Moav from the Emori (who in turn had won them from the Amoni and Moavi) and after the wars in the book of Yehoshua they are settled by the people of Re’uvein, Gad, and half of the tribe of Menashah. (This is the land just east of the much of the Jordan river, in the western part of the current country of Jordan.) However, the land is not resettled by Jews in the second time around, in the days of Ezra. Shemittah only applies to lands conquered in the days of Ezra, or those lands with Jewish populations next to it that the law was rabbinicly extended to.

Rabbi Yochanan says that this does not include Amon and Moav with respect to shemittah, but one is obligated to give maaser from crops grown in that area. Given that the second tithe differs depending upon the year of the cycle, but in Israel proper there is no tithe for the shemittah year, what does one do in the seventh year in Amon and Moav? Rabbi Yochanan (note: the same Rabbi Yochanan as in the gemara I quoted) rules that one gives maaser ani to the poor.

Hunting for spiritual experiences or prohibiting things so as to avoid doubt are NOT appropriate chumeros if it means difficulties for others! Quite on the contrary — the gemara recommends starting with being stringent in how we extend aid…