The Torah in Parashat Masei (35:1-8) instructs that although the tribe of Levi did not receive a section of land in Eretz Yisrael like the other tribes, they were given forty-eight cities that were scattered throughout the country in which they would live.
The Talmud Yerushalmi (Ma’aser Sheni 5:5) cites a debate among the Tanna’im regarding the legal status of these forty-eight cities. One view maintained that each of these cities was formally owned by the tribe in whose territory it was situated, even though it was designated for the Leviyim’s residence. According to the other view, these cities are to be viewed as the allocated territory of the tribe of Levi, which was, from a formal, legal standpoint, no different from the territory allocated to the other tribes. This means that although every city was situated within a different tribe’s territory, the city itself was, in all respects, the territory of the Leviyim.
The Yerushalmi points to two practical differences between these two approaches. The first has to do with the arei miklat – the six cities of refuge, which were among the forty-eight Levite cities. These cities served not only as places of residence for the Leviyim, but also as places of refuge for inadvertent killers, who needed protection from angry relatives of the victims. The Tanna’im debate the question of whether or not the killer who relocated in a city of refuge needed to pay rent to the Leviyim in exchange for rights of residence. One view maintained that since these cities belonged to the Leviyim, the refugees naturally needed to pay for their lodging. According to the other view, however, the Leviyim did not truly own the territory of these cities, and were merely given the right to live there, and so they could not charge rent from the inadvertent killers who came to seek refuge in these cities.
The second issue relates to vidui ma’aser – the declaration that one must make every three years avowing compliance with the Torah’s tithing obligations. This declaration concludes with a prayer that God should bless “the land which You have given us” (Devarim 26:15), and it is therefore recited only by those who received territory in Eretz Yisrael. Hence, according to one view in the Mishna (Ma’aser Sheni 5:14), the view of Rabbi Meir, members of the tribe of Levi do not recite vidui ma’aser, as they did not receive a portion in the Land of Israel. Rabbi Yossi disagrees, arguing that since the tribe of Levi was given forty-eight cities, they are able to pray that God bless “the land which You have given us,” and so they must recite vidui ma’aser. As the Yerushalmi notes, Rabbi Meir is the one who maintains that the inadvertent killers seeking refuge in the arei miklat did not pay the Leviyim rent. In his view, the Levite cities did not legally belong to the tribe of Levi, and thus the Leviyim could not charge for rent, and they did not recite vidui ma’aser. According to other view among the Tanna’im, the Leviyim’s cities were legally their territory, and thus they could charge rent and were included in the obligation of vidui ma’aser.
From a purely textual standpoint, Rabbi Meir’s position appears more convincing. Earlier in Sefer Bamidbar (18:23), God proclaimed that the Leviyim would not receive a “nachala” (“plot,” or “portion”) in Eretz Yisrael, and here in Parashat Masei (35:2), God commands the other tribes to give the Levites “arim la-shavet” – “cities in which to live.” This would certainly appear to indicate that the Leviyim received no portion of their own, but the other tribes were required to allocate portions of their territory as places of residence for the Leviyim. As Chizkuni writes, commenting on this verse, “Although they do not receive a share, they nevertheless need a house in which to live.” The text, therefore, would seem to support Rabbi Meir’s position, that the Leviyim did not truly own their cities.
The Rambam, however, in Hilkhot Ma’aser Sheni (11:16), codifies the view of the other Tanna’im, that Leviyim must declare vidui ma’aser because they were given cities for residence and are thus considered to have received a portion of the Land of Israel.