360. Maaser Beheima: The obligation to separate tithes from animals
…the tenth will be holy to God. (Leviticus 27:32)
Each year, one-tenth of the cattle, sheep and goats born to a person’s flocks and herds had to be designated as maaser beheima, the tithe of animals. These animals had to be brought to Jerusalem where, after being sacrificed, they were eaten by their owners.
The reason for this mitzvah has to do with the fact that Jerusalem –home of the Temple and the Sanhedrin –was the spiritual heart of the nation. Accordingly, God gave the people many reasons to go there, such as the three annual pilgrimages and the second tithe in four years of the Shemittah cycle. In fact, it was not uncommon for people to send their sons to study Torah in a Jerusalem yeshiva and live off the animals of maaser beheima. The result was that there would be a proliferation of learned people in families throughout the land.
There were three designated periods for maaser beheima during the year, each one shortly before one of the three Festivals. In this way, the animals would be available to take on the pilgrimages to Jerusalem.
This law applies to everyone: men and women, kohanim, Leviim and Yisraelim, both when the Temple is standing and when it isn’t. However, we cannot observe this mitzvah today because slaughtering an unblemished animal of maaser beheima would violate the prohibition against slaughtering a sacrifice outside the Temple (Mitzvah #186).
This mitzvah is discussed in the Talmud in the ninth chapter of tractate Bechoros (the title of which is actually “Maaser Beheima”). It is codified in the Mishneh Torah in the sixth chapter of Hilchos Bechoros and is #78 of the 248 positive mitzvos in the Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvos.