Talmud pages

Yevamot 86

Walling off the garden.

As we’ve discussed, the priests in the Temple were so busy making sacrifices they did not always have time to make a living. As prescribed by the Torah, they were sustained by terumah — a tithe the Israelites donated from their own produce.

The Levites — far more numerous than the priests — also worked in the Temple, and their work also took significant time away from earning a livelihood. The Torah prescribes a tithe for them as well, called ma’aser rishon, which literally means “first tenth.” (The Levites’ portion was the “first” tenth because there were other tithes separated afterward for other purposes, dubbed second and third ma’aser, which we will discuss another time.)

Of course, the priests, who come from the levitical family of Aaron, are also Levites. Today our daf asks: Should the priests also receive ma’aser rishon? According to beraita (early rabbinic teaching) two eminent Tannaim disagree on the answer:

Terumah is given to a priest, and the ma’aser rishon is given only to a Levite — this is the statement of Rabbi Akiva.

Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya says: The ma’aser rishon is given (also) to a priest.

One can detect a whiff of irritation in Rabbi Akiva’s answer — the priests already get terumah, they don’t need ma’aser rishon.

One can imagine practical arguments either way. Perhaps priests should receive ma’aser rishon because they are technically Levites. Or perhaps they should not because they get their own tithes. The Gemara doesn’t pursue these arguments, instead asking about the scriptural basis for each opinion and a duel of verses begins. Rabbi Akiva, the Gemara says, is supported by Numbers 18:26, which mentions Levites but not priests in connection with ma’aser rishon. Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya, on the other hand, is supported by 24 verses that refer to priests as Levites.

This approach ends in a draw (though we might suppose Rabbi Elazar’s 24 verses outweigh Rabbi Akiva’s one), so the Gemara imagines a different way the two Tanaaim might have defended their views. Rabbi Akiva is supported by Numbers 18:31 that says of ma’aser rishon: “And you may eat it in any place.” Since the requirement to maintain a certain purity status prevents priests from entering cemeteries, they obviously cannot eat ma’aser rishon in any place and therefore they should not be allotted ma’aser rishon. Rabbi Elazar, the Gemara continues, is supported by a less literal (but likely more defensible) interpretation of this verse that ma’aser rishon may be eaten outside the walls of Jerusalem (unlike terumah). Since priests were allowed to exit Jerusalem, this verse cannot serve as a barrier to their receiving ma’aser rishon.

Still at an apparent draw, the Gemara now relates that this debate evolved from scholastic to personal — and things got ugly:

There was a certain garden from which Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya would take the ma’aser rishon.

Rabbi Akiva went and changed its entrance so that it would be facing toward the cemetery.

Rabbi Elazar said: Akiva comes with his satchel, but I have to live!

Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya’s position, we now learn, wasn’t just theoretical — it was practical. As a priest, he was in fact receiving ma’aser rishon — in a secret garden no less. This may well have irked Rabbi Akiva because Rabbi Elazar, the legendary owner of a herd that produced 12,000 calves a year in tithes alone (see Kiddushim 49b and Shabbat 54b), was so wealthy he hardly needed to skim from the Levites.

Moreover, Rabbi Akiva, himself a very poor man, had many negative experiences with the wealthy. Akiva famously spent the first part of his life shepherding for a wealthy man named Kalba Savua. When the future rabbi, then a poor ignorant shlub, secretly betrothed Kalba Savua’s daughter Rachel, her father threw them both out. Akiva and Rachel were so poor in the early years of their marriage that they slept on a heap of straw, some of which caught in her hair. Akiva wistfully pretended these bits of straw were a golden ornament for his beloved wife.

Rabbi Akiva’s ire gets the better of him, and he walls up the entrance to Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya’s ma’aser garden, then creates a different entrance that faces the cemetery, requiring anyone who wishes to enter to step over graves. This, of course, prevents Rabbi Elazar, a priest, from coming to collect. Rabbi Elazar’s protest — “Akiva comes with his satchel (i.e. has a means to earn a living), but I have to live!” — rings hollow in light of the enormous wealth gap between them.

The sugya ends here, with no resolution to the matter. But Rabbi Elazar, whose legal arguments were better, and who didn’t stoop to cheap tricks, seems to have won, as the next sugya opens with a question: For what reason did the sages penalize the Levites? In other words, why did the Levites have to share their tithe with the priests, who already received one themselves? It seems that though the sages followed Rabbi Elazar halakhically, plenty had sympathy for Rabbi Akiva.

Read all of Yevamot 86 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 1st, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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