395. I Am the Ten Percent: The obligation to separate tithe for the Levite

…I have given it as a gift to the Levites… (Numbers 18:24)

A tithe is ten percent. A number of tithes were taken from one’s crops, in a particular order. The first of these is the appropriately-named maaser rishon (literally, “first tithe”), which was given to a Levite.

Unlike terumah, the portion given to a kohein, maaser rishon is considered chulin, that is, purely secular food. As such, it may be eaten by anyone, even in a state of ritual impurity. Just as terumah had to be taken by an Israelite from his produce, a Levite likewise had to take terumah from the maaser that was given to him, as we shall see. Not only that, even though kohanim and Leviim received tithes and other gifts from the Yisraelim, they were likewise obligated in separating tithes from their own produce.

The reason for this mitzvah is that God gave land to all the Tribes except for Levi; to Levi, He gave the Temple service. While this is an important job, it does leave the Leviim without a source of income. It really wouldn’t do to have the Levites, who serve on behalf of the nation, begging in the streets. Instead, God arranged to have them supported through the tithes.

Diligently giving tithes is said to be insurance for wealth. That is, one who is meticulous in this mitzvah will be more prosperous than one who treats it lightly (see Mishna Avos 3:13). In fact, while we are not allowed to “test” God, in this matter we are, as stated explicitly in the Book of Malachi, “Bring the entire tithe into the storehouse…and test Me through it, says God” (3:10).

This mitzvah applies to men and women, kohanim, Leviim and Yisraelim alike. In the Mishna, it is the subject of tractate Maaseros. It is codified in the Mishneh Torah in the first chapter of Hilchos Maaser. This mitzvah is #127 of the 248 positive mitzvos in the Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvos and #12 of the 26 mitzvos that can be fulfilled in Israel according to the list of the Steipler Gaon.