For the week ending 6 July 2024 / 30 Sivan 5784

Taamei Hamitzvos - Terumah, Maaser, and Challah

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Reasons Behind the Mitzvos: Terumah, Maaser, and Challah

By Rabbi Shmuel Kraines

“Study improves the quality of the act and completes it, and a mitzvah is more beautiful when it emerges from someone who understands its significance.” (Meiri, Bava Kama 17a)

Mitzvos #385, #395, and #507 (Bamidbar 15:17-21; 18:24; Devarim 18:4)


We are commanded to give a portion of our produce to a Kohen, called terumah, a portion to a Levi, called maaser, and a portion of every dough mixture to a Kohen, called challah. We give these tithes to support the Kohanim and Leviim, Hashem’s servants, who engage in the service of the Beis HaMikdash and the teaching of His Torah. Supporting them is not so much a matter of charity, but rather a means of enabling them to focus on their service on our behalf. Through the tithes, even the simplest farmer becomes a part of the service in Beis HaMikdash and the spreading of the Torah. By the farmer refraining from taking from the produce for himself until it has been tithed, he remembers that he is Hashem's servant and whatever he has been granted is only to enable him to serve Hashem better. Incidentally, the Sages enacted monetary tithes (maaser kesafim)in parallel to the tithes of produce. Accordingly, these days when there is no Beis HaMikdash, a person should ideally give his maaser kesafim for the support of Torah study (Ahavas Chesed ch. 18, based on Tanchuma §18).


A farmer gives terumah from all his grain produce while it is still in the granary and gives it to a Kohen, and then, once he makes dought of that produce, he gives a Kohen a second tithe, challah. Why does the Torah command him to give two tithes to a Kohen from the same produce? The simplest explanation is that Hashem granted us a multitude of mitzvos that permeate the very fabric of our lives so that we can always think of Him, relate to Him, and live together with Him. He likewise commanded us to tithe in numerous ways to remind us that our bounty comes from Him. We remember him once when we separate terumah, and again when we separate challah. Every mitzvah and every tithe deepens our relationship with Hashem.


A second reason we separate challah in addition to the produce tithes is to bring blessing into our homes (Sefer HaChinuch). Let us first explain how tithing in general brings us blessing. Hashem wishes to bless us without limit, with the ultimate purpose of bringing us to recognize Him, serve Him, and merit eternal blessing. Accordingly, blessing is only fitting and beneficial when the recipient recognizes that it comes from Hashem and feels grateful to Him for it. If the recipient chooses to ignore Hashem and considers all his success the fruits of his labor, that blessing is inappropriate and may even invoke punishment. When we give terumah from produce, we bring to heart that the rain falls, the sun shines, and the earth yields its bounty only because of Hashem. When our appreciation of Hashem increases, we become worthy of receiving additional blessing, and Hashem bestows new and increased blessing upon our fields.

Now, someone who recognizes the kindness of successful crops still may not recognize the kindness of every individual receiving sufficient livelihood, which is a different type of kindness that is symbolized by bread. Moreover, most people do not grow produce, but all people eat bread and need a livelihood. Therefore, Hashem commanded us to also separate challah from dough. We thereby bring to heart that Hashem watches over every person and gives him bread to eat, and Hashem in turn bestows further blessing upon our homes (Rav Hirsch).


A third reason Hashem commanded us to separate challah in addition to the produce tithes is that the produce tithes are generally separated in the granary, by men, and Hashem wanted to give even women an opportunity to tithe. In fact, the mitzvah of Challah applies especially to women. The Midrash (Tanchuma, Noach §1) explains that Chavah played a pivotal role in the sin of the Tree of Knowledge that contaminated Adam, “the challah of the world.” Womankind rectify this by giving Hashem challah from their dough.

The Midrash means as follows: The common denominator between Adam and challah is that they are both the first portion of a completed product of the earth that is dedicated to Hashem. Challah is the first portion that is given to Hashem from dough, which is the final stage of the production of bread, before baking. So too, after creating the earth and all it contains, Hashem separated Adam from the soil and dedicated him to Himself on behalf of the earth. If Adam had not sinned and instead dedicated himself to Hashem that entire first day, it would have been considered as if the entire earth had been fully dedicated to Hashem, and the universe would have reached completion. Adam was meant to complete Creation. Only, he became contaminated and cursed through sin, and the earth that he represented shared his fate.

It would seem that the sin of contaminating the first man who was the earth’s challah could never be rectified, for no other man would ever be the challah of the earth. However, every sin has a means of rectification, and one of the primary means of rectifying this sin is through the mitzvah of Challah.This simple mitzvah is very significant to Hashem, as the Sages teach: The world was created in the merit of Challah (Bereishis Rabbah 1:5). By a woman dedicating to Hashem the first portion of her dough that is the produce of the earth, she has given Hashem a pure challah on a minor scale, and this serves to rectify the primordial sin. The most appropriate time to perform it is Erev Shabbos, the day when that sin transpired.

One would think that it is better to separate challah once the dough has been baked, in order to give Hashem something that is fully ready. However, the Torah specifies that it should ideally be separated in a dough state. Perhaps this is because the sin of Adam took place before he was a finished product, for he had not yet fulfilled his solitary mitzvah of refraining from the Tree of Knowledge. Corresponding to the contamination of Adam in an unfinished state, challah should ideally be separate from dough, in an unfinished state. Every time a woman separates challah,she removes some of the curse that struck the world as a result of the primordial sin, and she brings the world closer to the finished state it was meant to reach on that fateful first day of humankind.

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