Maaser Sheni (Second Tithe)
What is the second tithe all about? Is the term derived from rabbinic sources, or is it used in the Torah?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
Imagine being commanded to take 10% of your profits to Jerusalem, where there you must spend all of it on food that your heart desires – whether lamb chops, pickles, coca cola, or tofu. However, since you need to eat all this in Jerusalem, you need to spend extra time there, soaking up the atmosphere and participating in Jerusalem’s number one activity: studying Torah.
For those living in the times of the Holy Temple, this is the mitzvah of the Second Tithe, Maaser Sheni. (Deuteronomy 14:26)
Maaser Sheni must be taken from all grains, wine and oil (plus fruits and vegetables on a rabbinic level) grown in Israel. The produce needed to be kept in a state of purity and eaten in a state of purity in the holy city of Jerusalem, at any time of the year.
The 10% was calculated after removing the Kohen's portion (Terumah) and the Levite's portion (Maaser Rishon). The main part of the mitzvah, eating Maaser Sheni in Jerusalem, only applies at the time of the Holy Temple. However, the essential obligation of Maaser Sheni still exists. If any of these tithes are not separated, the produce is known as tevel and forbidden for consumption.
Within the seven year cycle, Maaser Sheni is required in years 1, 2, 4 and 5 – with years 3 and 6 designated as tithe for the poor, and the seventh Sabbatical year no tithes were taken at all.
Actually, it was not required to carry the raw produce to Jerusalem. The Torah says that if the distance to Jerusalem was too great, and shlepping the produce was impractical, then one could exchange it for money (Deuteronomy 14:24). This money would then be brought to Jerusalem where it must be used to by food eaten in the Holy City. (In exchanging the food for money, one must add a "redemption fee" of an extra 25% – Leviticus 27:30.)
Today we redeem our Maaser Sheni onto a small coin. The money becomes sacred, i.e. earmarked for holy purposes, while the produce becomes desanctified and available for any use. When the value of the coin is "filled," the coin can be redeemed on a coin of higher value or discarded in a way that prevents its future use. The actual procedure for removing the tithe is complicated, and you should seek rabbinic guidance in doing so.
What is the reason for Maaser Sheni? The Sefer HaChinuch explains that in the times of the Temple, the average person would have little time to learn Torah, due to the long hours he would spend tending to his crops and business. The obligation to go to Jerusalem, would allow him to spend time in a center of Torah learning, a place where the great Sanhedrin presided, and since he had so much Maaser Sheni money to spend on food, he was well-supplied. Since at least one member from each household made this pilgrimage each year, this ensured that every Jewish home would have at least one Torah scholar.
The Talmudic tractate of Maaser Sheni explains what items may or may not be purchased with the second tithe money; the legal procedures for the exchange; whether the sanctity of the tithe extends to containers and waste products; what qualifies as "eating"; under what circumstances may the coins be exchanged for other coins; defining the exact city limits of Jerusalem in which the second tithe food must be eaten; what counts as a coin for which the tithe may be redeemed.