By Meyer Shwarzstein, June 1, 2024


If you made a list of the most popular subjects in the Tanach, the agricultural laws and the related tithes may be at the bottom. The Babylonian Talmud doesn’t even review most of the Mishnayot related to these laws.

My chavruto and I think there are three lessons that may be derived from these laws, may be key to the administration of a healthy agrarian society, and are relatable to us today.

This parsha closes Vayikra and starting next week, the Jewish journey to Israel will continue. At the conclusion of the journey, the manna stops and they must work the land to make a living.

Without the land, there’s no food for people or animals.

Lesson 1 – Shemita. The land must rest every 7 years. We learn that it’s our responsibility to take care of the earth.

We understand how the farmers make a living, but what about those who don’t own land?

The Kohanim aren’t granted a portion of the land. Their “portion” is temple service. The Torah establishes Terumah which mandates a requirement for everyone to make a contribution to them. This is how they get paid and acknowledgement.

The Leviim aren’t granted a portion of the land. They support the Kohanim, teach, operate the cities of refuge, are musicians and provide other services. The Torah establishes Maaser which mandates a requirement for all farmers to make a contribution to them. They then give a portion from what they get to the Kohanim.

The poor and strangers own no land. Farmers are mandated to dedicate a corner of their fields during every harvest for them (Peah). In addition, they are granted the right to collect anything that drops during the harvest (Leket) as well any forgotten sheaves, bales or stacks of food which are forgotten (Shechicah).

In addition, during the 3rd and 6th year of the 7-year agricultural cycle, farmers are mandated to distribute produce to the Levites, poor, stranger, orphaned and widowed.

Lesson 2: It is society’s responsibility to make sure everyone is taken care of.

There’s one last tithe – it’s called Maaser Sheni.

During the other four years of the harvest cycle, Devarim 14:22 commands, “you shall consume the tithes of your new grain and wine and oil, and the firstlings of you herds and flocks In the presence of the L-rd your G-d, in the place where He shall establish His name, so that you may learn to revere the L-rd you G-d forever.”

The farmers are required to partake of these tithes in Jerusalem. That means there’s a tithe that isn’t given to away to anyone. Why?

Adding to the mystery are a couple of pesukim hear the end of today’s parsha:

(Vayikra 27:30) “All tithes from the land, whether seed from the ground or fruit from the tree, are the L-rd’s; they are holy to the L-rd. If anyone wishes to redeem any of his tithes, he must add one-fifth to them.”

So, you’re packing for your trip to Jerusalem, you’ve set aside a bottle of wine to take with you and now, you decide that you want to take a different bottle along instead of the one you set aside. According to the Torah, you can take a different bottle but only after “redeeming ” the first one. Your act of setting it aside, made it holy – “It is the L-rd’s, it is holy to the L-rd. ” To “redeem it” you have to add 1/5 of the amount included in that bottle.

This 20% tax on redemption isn’t just applied to Maaser Sheni, it’s also applied to a set of other pesukim also included at the end of Bechukotai.

Why are these pesukim in this parsha? Does it have anything to do with the blessings and curses? And why do we have to 1/5th because we changed our mind?

First, why is the food to be brought to Jerusalem?

The Sefer Hachinuch suggests that the point is for the farmers to come to “the place where involvement with wisdom and Torah is found.” This is where the Kohanim are, the Sanhedrin and academies of learning. It’s about people taking time off every year for education.

Might that interchange also benefit the city-dwellers?

The beginning of our parsha reads, “If you follow my laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant you rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit.”

Who knows this better about the blessings than the farmers? The city dwellers may rely on the farmers for food, but do they understand the risks and rewards? And how else can they get a taste of food that’s fresh?

The effects of the blessings and curses are well known to the farmers. They are familiar with getting too little rain or too much; too little sun or too much. They understand that they can create the conditions for the crops to grow but they aren’t masters of their fate.

My chavruta suggested that farmers may have more faith. And maybe that’s something the city-dwellers need to be exposed to.

There’s another possible benefit.

Imagine if, in the United States, adults and kids throughout the country had to travel to Washington DC during the year. We’d be forced to come face to face with people different to us, who eat different foods, who care about different things and with whom we may disagree. By being involuntarily brought face to face with each other, might we create a possibility of consensus?

So we know why we’re eating it in Jerusalem. But why do we need to pay 1/5th more if we change our minds?

The whole parsha is teaching us to stand by our commitments. Everything listed in the blessings and curses are consequences of actions, not beliefs. They’re directly caused by our lack of follow-through. We reap what we sow.

Lesson 3. A healthy society needs more than providing for those who don’t have. We need to meet face to face, recommit to our society and follow through. Community is an endemic value in our tradition.

Like so many of you, I’ve seen experienced this on a local level. My daughter has been undergoing medical treatment and I’ve spent time in her community. They’re amazing – they support her in every way – with food, with love, with attention and with kindness. They see through commitments they make day in and day out. They’ve helped her tremendously. And by giving them an opportunity to give, they’ve gained something too.

Those of us who are a part of this community understand and appreciate its value.

I’m very grateful to be a part of it.

Shabbat shalom

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