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Reward And Punishment
‘Masser Rishon For The levi’im’
(Yevamos 86a)



Ezra received permission from the king of Persia to return to Eretz Yisrael and rebuild the Beis HaMikdash. He hoped to lead the entire Jewish people back, but many wished to remain behind in galus, including the levi’im. Ezra therefore punished them by declaring that henceforth their maaser rishon should be given to the kohanim, who returned with him to Eretz Yisrael (and who were also from the tribe of Levi).



The Tanna’im debate who could claim maaser rishon before Ezra imposed his punishment. According to R’ Elazar ben Azarya, maaser rishon could be given either to levi’im or kohanim. According to R’ Akiva, maaser rishon could only be given to levi’im.


The Punishment

Tosafos (s.v. “Mar sover”) explain that according to R’ Elazar ben Azarya, Ezra decreed that maaser rishon may no longer be given to levi’im at all. According to R’ Akiva, however, Ezra merely expanded the pool of people who could now receive maaser rishon. In addition to levi’im, kohanim could now also receive maaser rishon.

The Rambam (Maasros 1:4) offers a third opinion. Before Ezra, he writes, maaser rishon could only be given to levi’im (as per R’ Akiva). After Ezra, maaser rishon could only be given to kohanim (as per Tosafos’s interpretation of R’ Elazar ben Azarya).


How Could Ezra Uproot a Mitzvah?

The opinion of R’ Elazar ben Azarya makes sense. Originally, there was a mitzvah to give maaser rishon to either kohanim or levi’im; after Ezra, one could only give it to kohanim. Ezra did not uproot the mitzvah entirely; he merely restricted how one may perform it.

The opinion of R’ Akiva, though, seems problematic as it has Ezra completely changing the nature of the mitzvah. How was he allowed to do that?


Rabbinic Maaser

The Minchas Chinuch (395:15) explains that the Rambam hints the answer to this question in his statement that “Ezra penalized the levi’im of his times and decreedthat maaser rishon should not be given to them.” Note the words “of his times.” When Ezra lived, the mitzvah of maaser was already rabbinic and thus he had the authority to change it since he was the foremost sage of his generation.

Ezra’s enactment will remain in place until Moshiach comes at which point the Torah obligation of terumos and maasros will return and levi’im will once again be able to claim their maaser rishon. (See also Chazon Ish, D’mai 2:3; Derech Emunah on the Rambam, loc. cit.)


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RABBI YAAKOV KLASS, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at RABBI GERSHON TANNENBAUM, rav of Congregation Bnai Israel of Linden Heights, Boro Park, Brooklyn, is the Director of Igud HaRabbanim – The Rabbinical Alliance of America.