SALT - Monday, 19 Iyar 5777 - May 15, 2017

  • Rav David Silverberg


This week's SALT shiurim are dedicated in memory of
David Moshe ben Harav Yehuda Leib Silverberg z"l, 
whose yahrzeit is Sunday 18 Iyar, May 14.



            Yesterday, we noted the question raised by several Rishonim regarding the Gemara’s account in Masekhet Shabbat (54b) of Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya designating animals as ma’aser beheima – the annual cattle tithe, which is introduced by the Torah in Parashat Bechukotai (27:32-33).  The Gemara tells that Rabbi Elazar was so wealthy that his tithe consisted of 12,000 calves, and the Rishonim raise the question of how to reconcile this account with the Gemara’s comment in Masekhet Bekhorot (53a) that the obligation of ma’aser beheima was suspended after the Temple’s destruction.  Chazal did not want a situation where animals would be consecrated without the possibility of offering them as sacrifices, and so they used their authority to suspend the requirement to consecrate one-tenth of one’s herds.  The question thus arises as to why Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya (who was, at most, a young child at the time of the Temple’s destruction) consecrated animals as ma’aser beheima.

            The Ritva, in his commentary to Masekhet Shabbat, offers several answers, including the possibility that despite the exemption, Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya nevertheless decided to tithe his cattle and give the tithe to the kohanim.  He did this, the Ritva explains, because he did not want to appear as though he was keeping for himself the portions that the Torah required giving to the kohanim.

            The Ritva’s comments become startling, and difficult to understand, in light of several sources indicating that the kohanim did not receive any portion of ma’aser beheima.  Animals consecrated as ma’aser beheima were offered as sacrifices in the Beit Ha-mikdash, and after the blood was sprinkled on the altar and the animals’ fats were placed on the fire of the altar, the meat was eaten by the owner.  The Tosesfta (Zevachim 5:3) states explicitly that kohanim received no portion of ma’aser beheima, and this is mentioned also by the Sifrei in Parashat Naso (in explaining Bamidbar 5:10).  The Rambam codifies this halakha in Hilkhot Bekhorot (6:4).  The Ritva, however, refers to ma’a’ser beheima as one of the priestly gifts, and explains on this basis Rabbi Elazar’s noble desire to tithe his cattle despite the halakhic exemption that was enacted after the Temple’s destruction. 

            It is possible that the Ritva’s comments here lend support to a theory advanced by Netziv, in his Ha’amek Davar commentary (Bamidbar 5:10).  Netziv cites a verse from Sefer Divrei Hayamim II (31:6) which appears amidst the description of King Chizkiyahu’s successful efforts to reinstate the service of God in the Beit Ha-mikdash, as well as the various required gifts to the kohanim and Leviyim.  We read that the people responded favorably to his call to bring these gifts, and the verse tells that among the gifts they brought to the kohanim was the cattle tithe.  Netziv infers from this account that it was customary to give the animals of ma’aser beheima to kohanim.  He explains that generally, the meat of one’s sacrifices which he is entitled to eat should specifically not be given to a kohen, as giving it to a kohen would mean forfeiting his mitzva to partake of sacrificial meat.  However, Netziv writes, ma’aser beheima marks an exception to this rule, as it may be given to a kohen, and, as implied by the verse in Sefer Divrei Hayamim, it was in fact customary to do so.

            This theory is perhaps reflected in the comments of the Ritva, who spoke of ma’aser beheima as a gift given the kohanim, which Rabbi Elazar admirably refused to deny the kohanim despite the halakhic exemption enacted after the Temple’s destruction.

            It should be noted that the Ritva’s comments are difficult to understand for an additional reason, as well.  As mentioned yesterday, Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya was himself a kohen.  Hence, there was no reason for him to be concerned about denying the kohanim what should be given to them, as he was fully entitled to keep the tithed animals for himself, even before the suspension of the ma’aser beheima requirement.  The Ritva’s comments, therefore, seem very difficult to understand.

(See Rav Chaim Shaul Kaufman’s Mishchat Shemen, vol. 1, p. 167.)