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.
The Torah in the final verses of Parashat Bechukotai (27:32-33) introduces the obligation of ma’aser beheima, which requires offering one-tenth of one’s animals each year as sacrifices. The animals designated as ma’aser beheima would be brought to the Beit Ha-mikdash, where their blood and fats would be offered on the altar, after which the owner would partake of the meat.
The Mishna in Masekhet Bekhorot (53a) establishes that the mitzva of ma’aser beheima applies both in the Land of Israel and outside the land, and irrespective of whether the Beit Ha-mikdash is standing. This means that after the Temple’s destruction, one must, in principle, designate one-tenth of his animals as ma’aser beheima, and those animals then become forbidden for any sort of use, including as meat, for labor, and for leather or wool. If such an animal develops a disqualifying mum (physical defect), then it may be slaughtered and eaten, though before slaughtering it remains forbidden for any sort of use.
Practically speaking, the Gemara (there in Bekhorot) comments that ma’aser beheima is not observed after the Temple’s destruction. The Sages suspended this mitzva out of concern for violations that could be unwittingly violated if animals were consecrated without any possibility of offering them as sacrifices. Rashi explains that one might forgetfully shear the wool of a sheep designated as ma’aser beheima, or slaughter it, in violation of the grave prohibition forbidding slaughtering sacrifices outside the Beit Ha-mikdash. To avoid these pitfalls, Chazal saw fit to suspend the ma’aser beheima obligation.
A number of Rishonim raised the question of how to reconcile this discussion with the Gemara’s description elsewhere, in Masekhet Shabbat (54b), of Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya’s wealth. Rabbi Elazar is said to have had so much cattle that he would designate 12,000 calves as ma’aser beheima each year. Tosefot in several places note that Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya lived after the Temple’s destruction, when the law of ma’aser beheima was no longer practiced. As we know from the famous story told in Masekhet Berakhot (27b) of his appointment as head of the academy of Yavneh, Rabbi Elazar received this appointment at the young age of eighteen, succeeding Rabban Gamliel. Rabban Gamliel himself succeeded in this position Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai, who founded the academy of Yavneh following the destruction of the Second Temple. Accordingly, Tosefot note that Rabbi Elazar could not have been more than a young child when the Temple was destroyed, and thus it was clearly after the destruction when he amassed a fortune of cattle. Why, then, did he consecrate one-tenth of his animals as ma’aser beheima, if the Sages suspended this obligation after the Temple’s destruction?
Numerous answers have been given to this question. Tosefot in Masekhet Bekhorot (53a) suggest what is perhaps the simplest explanation, namely, that the suspension of ma’aser beheima was not enacted immediately after the fall of the Second Temple. The mitzva was still observed for a number of years after the destruction, and it was only later, at some point during or after Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya’s lifetime, when the observance was suspended.
Another possibility is proposed by Tosefot in Masekhet Shabbat, where they suggest that perhaps the Gemara there refers to Rabbi Elazar’s childhood, when the Temple still stood. It is possible that he owned property as a child which was governed by an apotropus (legal guardian), and it was his apotropus who would designate one-tenth of the animals as ma’aser beheima. As noted by Tosefot in Bekhorot, however, this possibility seems strained and difficult to accept.
Tosefot there in Shabbat cite Rabbenu Elchanan as suggesting another possibility, namely, that the Gemara refers not to ma’aser beheima, but rather to a ten-percent tax levied by the government at the time. Indeed, the obligation of ma’aser beheima had already been suspended, and the Gemara speaks of the huge amount of animals that Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya needed to pay the government as tax due to his immense wealth.
Rabbi Akiva Eiger (in Gilyon Ha-Shas), references in the context of Rabbenu Elchanan’s answer the comments of the Mishneh Le-melekh in Hilkhot Bekhorot (6:3). The Mishneh Le-melekh there cites a discussion in the Rashba’s commentary to Masekhet Chulin (136) regarding the question of whether kohanim are included in the obligation of ma’aser beheima. The Rashba drew proof that a kohen is obligated to offer ma’aser beheima from the account of Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya’s offering. The Gemara in Berakhot tells that Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya was a descendant of Ezra, the leader of the Jews at the beginning of the Second Commonwealth, and we know from Sefer Ezra (7:1-5) that Ezra was a kohen, a descendant of Aharon’s grandson, Pinchas. If Rabbi Elazar observed the requirement of ma’aser beheima, then, we have proof that the obligation applies even to kohanim. Rabbi Akiva Eiger’s reference to this discussion was likely intended to demonstrate that this proof can be refuted by Rabbenu Elchanan’s reading of the Gemara’s account. If Rabbi Elazar did not designate one-tenth of his herds as ma’aser beheima, but was merely paying his taxes to the government, then we of course have no proof that kohanim are included in the ma’aser beheima obligation.