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Encyclopedia Judaica: Terumot and Ma'aserot

TERUMOT AND MA'ASEROT (Heb. תְּרוּמוֹת, "heave offerings," and מַעַשְׂרוֹת, "tithes"), dues given to the priests and the poor. A number of passages in the Bible deal with ma'aser and according to the halakhah they refer to different categories: the first tithe is given to the levites (Num. 18:21–24); the second tithe is eaten in Jerusalem or redeemed (Deut. 14:22–26); and the tithe that is given to the poor (Deut. 14:28–29 and 26:12). In order to render agricultural produce fit for ordinary consumption (ḥullin), terumot and ma'aserot had to be allocated from it in the following manner: first terumah was set aside for the priests, and from the remainder a tenth, the first tithe, was given to the levites. The levites then had to give a tithe of this first tithe, called terumat ma'aser or ma'aser min ha-ma'aser ("a tithe of the tithe") to the priests. After terumah and the first tithe were set aside, a second tithe had to be given of the remainder. In the first, second, fourth, and fifth years of the sabbatical cycle this constituted the second tithe, while in the third and sixth years it became the poor man's tithe. The second tithe had either to be taken up to Jerusalem to be eaten there, or redeemed for money and the money plus an added quarter taken to Jerusalem, where it could be spent at the owner's discretion for his upkeep. The tithe given to the poor is not regarded as sacred. On the last day of Passover of the fourth and seventh years a declaration in line with the biblical injunction (Deut. 26:13–15, called "the declaration of the tithe"), which was applied to all tithes, was made.

Produce from which terumah and ma'aser have not been set aside is called tevel and may not be eaten either by its owner or by priests. The produce of an *am ha-areẓ , who is "unreliable as to tithes" so that it is uncertain whether its terumot and ma'aserot have been set aside as prescribed, is called *demai .

The Bible does not prescribe a given quantity of terumah. Hence, according to the letter of the Law, the offer of a single ear of wheat should be enough for the whole. However, the rabbis established a quota: "The proper amount of terumah: if a man is liberal it is one-fortieth – Bet Shammai say one-thirtieth – for the average man it is one-fiftieth, and for the niggardly, one-sixtieth" (Ter. 4:3).

Although biblical law confines the duty of giving terumot and ma'aserot to grain, wine, and oil (cf. Deut. 12:17, "the tithe of the corn, the wine, and the oil"), the sages deduced from the Bible that it applied to other produce and fruits and, according to the halakhah, it was further applied to vegetables. The halakhic rule is that "whatever is food and guarded [i.e, does not grow wild] and grows from the earth is liable to tithes" (Ma'as. 1:1). At the close of the tannaitic era the duty of giving tithes was extended to money as well. Similarly there is evidence of terumah and ma'aser being set aside from all foods, and it would seem that this was "the custom of the pious."

The Bible prescribes a tithe to be set aside from cattle (Lev. 27:32), but this the halakhah treated as a sacrifice (Zev. 5:8). On the other hand, a substantial number of sources in the apocryphal halakhah indicate that a tithe of cattle was given to the priest (Jub. 32:15, cf. Philo, Virt. 95, etc.; cf. also II Chron. 31:6). Apparently this was the practice at the beginning of the Second Temple era, while the halakhah that regards the tithe of cattle as a sacrifice consumed by the owner reflects the practice of a later period. Some of the apocryphal sources (Jub. 32:11; Tob. 1:7; etc.) explain the verses of the Bible as if the second tithe was set aside every year (as does also Targ. Jon.), and that three tithes were set aside in the third and sixth years. It seems, however, that this was written according to their understanding of the verses, without subsequent exegesis, and should not be regarded as reflecting actual conditions.

According to theoretical halakhah, the owner of produce can give the terumah and ma'aser (first tithe) anywhere and to any priest or levite he pleases. This halakhah was not in force at the beginning of the Second Temple period. It is seen from the post-Exilic biblical books (Mal. 3:10; Neh. 13:5, etc.), the Apocrypha (Judith 11:13; Tob. 1:6–7; etc.), and Philo (Spec. 1:132–5) that the terumot and ma'aserot were taken to the Temple in Jerusalem (cf. also LXX, Ex. 1:21). It is almost certain that the regulations concerning the bringing of the priestly and levitical gifts to Jerusalem were made in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, as part of their general tendency to enhance the national and economic status of Jerusalem. These regulations also seem to be connected with the working procedures of the priests and levites in the Temple, for in this way the priestly and levitical gifts could all be collected at the Temple and fairly distributed among the priests and levites engaged at the time in the divine service.

No definite time was fixed for carrying the terumot and ma'aserot to Jerusalem, but it may be assumed that they were taken there during the pilgrimage festivals. The second tithe, too, was taken up at that time, as were such other gifts as the firstborn of cattle and the fruit of the fourth-year planting, probably for the purpose of "adorning the streets of Jerusalem with fruit" (RH 31b).

According to the halakhah, the first tithe is given to the levites, but there is ample evidence of a practice by which it went to the priests. This is first mentioned in Nehemiah (13:4–13), and the Talmud explains it as a penalty imposed upon the levites because so few of them had returned to Zion (Yev. 86b). The practice of the priests taking tithes continued during the Persian and Hellenistic epochs, and there are echoes of it in the Apocrypha (Judith 11:13; Jub. 13:25–27; etc.). Presumably, however, they were not the only recipients, but the tithes were distributed proportionately among the priests and levites on duty in the Temple. It is possible that the following dictum in a highly problematic baraita more or less represents the position with regard to the division of the tithes during these periods: "At first the tithe was divided into three parts, one-third for known priests and levites, one-third for the treasury, and one-third for the poor and to *ḥaverim who were in Jerusalem" (TJ, Ma'as. Sh. 5:9, 56d).

The Hasmonean kings tried to seize control of the tithes for their own purposes. The edict of Johanan the high priest (Ma'as, Sh. 5:15) must be understood with this in mind as well as the subsequent edict of Julius Caesar to Hyrcanus II stating: "and in addition they shall also pay to Hyrcanus and his sons the tithes that they also paid to their forefathers" (Jos., Ant., 14:203). It may be assumed that the halakhic provision that terumah and ma'aser could be given everywhere and to any priest or levite was not only congenial to the owner of the produce but also expressed Pharisaic opposition to the use the Hasmonean kings were making of the tithes. The Pharisees wanted to retain the precept of setting aside these dues while preventing their being taken by the Hasmonean rulers in Jerusalem. This halakhah seems to have been fairly widely followed and there are sources, both internal and external, from the end of the Temple period, showing that tithes were given at the various localities. It is against this background that the term "priests and levites who stood by the threshing floor" came into being.

Terumot and ma'aserot continued to be set aside also after the destruction of the Temple, when tithing became a kind of substitute for the sanctity of the Temple and the sacrificial service. This is evident from the following incident: "Once Tarfon was late in coming to the bet midrash. Rabban Gamaliel said to him, What is the reason for your delay? He replied: I was performing the [Temple] service. He then said to him: How come? Is there any service nowadays? He answered: It says in the Bible: 'I give you the priesthood as a service of gift' [Num. 18:7], making the eating of food within the borders of Ereẓ Israel equivalent to the service in the Temple" (Sif. Num. 116).

The dispute on whether tithes should be given to the priests or to the levites also continued after the destruction of the Temple. Toward the end of the tannaitic era a new tendency developed: the tithes were given especially to those priests and levites who were scholars, too, and in the course of time even to scholars who were not priests and levites. The idea behind this is clear: to endow those who held communal appointments and were in charge of the spiritual leadership of the nation with the perquisites which before had belonged to the priests and levites.

The commandment of terumah was throughout strictly observed by most sections of the people; but this was not so with the first tithe. The main reasons for the failure to offer the prescribed tithes were (1) the economic hardship involved; (2) their utilization as taxes by the Hasmonean rulers; (3) the fact that many priests and levites were landlords in their own right; (4) the difficulty of carrying the tithes to Jerusalem at the time when this was the common practice; (5) the process of urbanization that began in Herod's time, when the farmers considered themselves discriminated against in favor of the town dwellers who were not tithed; (6) the reduced significance of the tithes after the destruction of the Temple.

The sages themselves appreciated the difficulty of complying exactly with the commandments relating to tithes, and within the framework of the halakhah evolved various exemptions and means of evasion. But there also was an opposite tendency. Many sayings of the sages and halakhot emphasize the great importance of the commandments and their full observance, as well as punishments incurred by transgressors, and the rewards accruing to the observant. The commandment was no doubt not extolled solely on theoretical grounds, but there must have been many who followed it scrupulously. Observance of tithes was one of the elements that united the groups of ḥaverim who tended to be even more strict than the original commandment. In the light of the punctiliousness of these groups, the concept of one "trustworthy in tithes" was created, with whom the ḥaverim could have commercial intercourse "without fear of demai." In the time of Bar Kokhba, the observance of the tithe rules was well established in wide circles; this can be inferred from the tenancy contracts signed in the name of Bar Kokhba stipulating that the quantity of produce due to the landlord be delivered after deduction of tithes. The great importance attached to the tithes by the sages and the ḥaverim on the one hand, and their widespread neglect on the other, resulted in "untrustworthiness in respect of tithes" coming to be considered one of the characteristics of the am ha-areẓ. Thus the observance or neglect of the rules of tithing turned into a class distinction.

According to the halakhah, the duty of setting aside terumot and ma'aserot did not apply outside Ereẓ Israel, following the principle: "Every precept dependent on the land [of Israel] is in force only in that land, and one not so dependent is in force both within and without the land [of Israel] except for *orlah and *kilayim " (Kid. 1:9). In fact, however, there is ample evidence that terumot and ma'aserot were set aside in the Diaspora as well – in Egypt, Babylon, and in various places in Asia Minor. It may be assumed that this applied in the Diaspora as a whole (evidence of the practice in Syria is irrelevant since in this respect it was almost considered part of the Land of Israel). It seems that in the Diaspora terumot and ma'aserot were not, as a rule, given to the local priests and levites but were brought to the Temple in Jerusalem. This was almost certainly done at the time of the pilgrimage when the half shekel was also brought there. Since it was impossible to carry the actual terumot and ma'aserot to Jerusalem, it may be assumed that they were converted into money, frequently at a symbolic amount, which was then taken to Jerusalem. It may be noted, too, that in the Diaspora it was customary to set aside terumot and ma'aserot in the Sabbatical year. There is evidence that in Egypt this certainly "applied to the poor man's tithe, that the poor of Israel could be supported by it in the Sabbatical year" (Yad. 4:3).


A. Oppenheimer, in: Sefer Zikkaron le-B. De Vries (1969), 70–83; E.E. Urbach, in: Zion, 16 (1951), 1–27; H. Albeck, Shishah Sidrei Mishnah, Seder Zera'im (1958), 173f., 217–20, 243f. etc.; idem, Das Buch der Jubilaeen und die Halacha, in: Siebenundvierzigster Bericht der Hochschule fuer die Wissenschaft des Judentums in Berlin (1930); Alon, Meḥkarim, 1 (1957), 83–92; A. Buechler, Die Priester in dem Cultus im letzten Jahrzehnt des Jerusalemischen Tempels (1895); idem, Der Galilaeische Am-ha-Areẓ des zweiten Jahrhunderts (1906); idem, in: Festschfrift … M. Steinschneider (1896), 91–109; idem, in: Zikhron Yehudah. Tanulmányok … Blau L. … emlékére (1938), 157–69 (Heb. pt.); S. Belkin, Philo and the Oral Law (1940), 67–78; J. Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (1969), index S.V. Terumah Tithes; H. Vogelstein, Der Kampf zwischen Priestern und Leviten (1889); S. Safrai, Ha-Aliyyah la-Regel bi-Ymei ha-Bayit ha-Sheni (1965); Z. Karl, in: Tarbiz, 16 (1944/45), 11–17; A. Schalit, Hordos ha-Melekh (19643), 138–41, 438–40.

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.