Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 16 October 2021 / 10 Cheshvan 5782

Count to Ten

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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When Avraham returns triumphant from his battle against the four kings, Malki Tzedek, a priest to Hashem, greets him with bread and wine, blessing both Avraham and Hashem for the miraculous victory. Avraham then gives Malki Tzedek maaser, a tenth of the spoils of war, as a tribute to Hashem.

This is the first mention of maaser in Scripture. Later, the Torah will set forth the obligation to tithe produce and give it to the Kohen and the Levi (and also to the poor). One who gives this tenth to the Levi expresses the following: “Hashem, Whose Name you proclaim, is the One Who gave me these possessions.” By giving the tithe to Malki Tzedek, Avraham acknowledges that Hashem, Whose Name Malki Tzedek proclaims, is the One Who graced him with victory.

As a rule, the word for “tenth” is asirit. But in this sense of tithing, it is called maaser. Had the tithe been called asirit, the tenth would have no special significance. It could just as well have been any other fraction. In dedicating assets to Hashem, it is not the fraction that is significant, but it is the act of giving, and specifically the act of giving the concluding tenth of each unit. This is why the verb form is an active form — maaser means to ‘make the ten.’ Ten is a significant number, conceptually and mathematically. It always represents a unit, a whole. There are nine digits and then the tenth concludes the first unit and also begins the next. We round to the nearest ten, count years in decades, and count all material things in tens. This is one of the reasons why a minyan is a minimum of ten individuals — it is the smallest unit that can represent the whole.

The obligation to tithe animals and produce was effected in this manner: Each tenth animal that passed under the staff would be separated as maaser. When tithing produce, they would not measure the whole quantity and then designate a tenth. Rather, they would designate every tenth measure as maaser. Maaser, then, does not mean a tenth part, but rather every tenth one. In this way, both the first and the concluding separation of property to the Kohen or Levi were dedicated to Hashem: The “first” — the first fruits, the first-born animal, and the “last” — the concluding tenth. This served as an ever-present reminder that all property belongs to Hashem.

When a person earns his first penny, he is still humble. With the memory of his previous state of need still fresh in his mind, he knows well that his success depends on the grace of Hashem. But the tenth, the one-hundredth, the thousandth, appear to him as natural as the ninth, or ninety-ninth, or nine hundred and ninety-ninth that came before. The commandment to give maaser, every tenth one, is to preserve his awareness that every unit is a direct gift from Hashem.

  • Sources: Commentary, Bereishet 14:22-24

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