Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 20 October 2018 / 11 Heshvan 5779

Parshat Lech Lecha

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Count to Ten

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

This is the first mention of maaser in Scripture. Later, the Torah will set forth the obligations 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: “G-d, in Whose Name you proclaim is the One Who gave me these possessions.” By giving a tithe to Malki Tzedek, Avraham acknowledges that Gd, 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 G-d, 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 G-d: 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 G-d.

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 G-d. 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 G-d.

  • Sources: Commentary, Bereishet, 14:22-24

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