The Tithe from What I Own

Friday, 17 May, 2019 - 6:48 am

Last week on Friday, when I was cutting up the potatoes for the Chabad House cholent(by the way, one of the best cholents in Europe), a man called me with a question: “I bought potatoes in a store in Germany on the border, and when I got home I saw that they came from Israel. What about ma’aser? (taking tithes).

Well, since we have no assurance that the potatoes intended for export undergo the separating of the tithes by the Rabbinate in Israel, our custom is to take ma’aser without making a bracha on it. So I sent him the text of ma’aser-taking and remembered suddenly that I buy my vegetables in the same store – so my cholent too needs to be tithed. I took the text and began to prepare myself for the mitzvah of ma’aser, while feeling uncomfortable. What am I doing? Where is there a poor person or a cohen? Why am I taking ma’aser from my cholent? But I’ve been a Jew for enough years to know that one does mitzvos even without understanding them exactly. And that it was what I did, with care. A moment after I finished, I suddenly understood everything. I suddenly grasped the idea that the very fact that I stopped everything I was doing, went to get the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, washed my hands, took the ma’aser and said the proper words as dictated – that is the issue itself. That is precisely the goal, that every once in a while I’ll stop everything and remember that not everything here is mine, not everything is in my possession, or in my hands. Moreover, I myself am in G-d’s hands, his Torah and mitzvos. And this is the proof of it.

This week I studied parashat Emor, which we will read tomorrow outside of Eretz Yisrael. I took some time while studying the mitzvos of leket, shichecha and peah (leaving behind in the field the few stalks that fall out of the grasp of the harvester, leaving behind whatever has been forgotten in the field and leaving the edge of the field unharvested – all for the poor). Unlike ma’aser, we don’t encounter leket, shichecha and peah in our daily life, and only know it from the books, and, of course, from the megillah of Ruth. Most of us do not have fields and we really don’t know any poor people who go to the fields to collect the leftovers that the owner of the field is commanded to leave behind. By Divine Providence, I happened upon a wonderful explanation of Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, who worked out last Friday’s ma’aser question as well. So I am sharing it with you:

“But this is the reason: while harvesting wheat or grapes a person looks at what nature has done for him, and what he will be bringing to his house as the fruit of his labors. At that time a person says that proud and highly-consequential word: “mine”. And now (from the moment that the mitzvah of giving to the poor is mentioned), every citizen in the nation will remember and express in action that every person who says “this is mine” has already been obligated to take care of others. His vineyard and field did not give their crops to him alone; while laboring in the field, he was not working only for himself. Because in Hashem’s land the caring for the poor person and the ger is not given over to the feelings of commiseration; it is not dependent on the fear of the owners from the danger they face from the despair of the poor, but it is a merit that Hashem gave to the poor, and it is an obligation that Hashem has placed on the landowners.”

A bit of perspective in life – that’s how what this mitzvah gives us can be expressed in one word.


Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

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