By Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow
The Torah awarded kohanim with terumah gifts. After terumah was separated from freshly grown Israeli produce, the farmer would separate 10% of what remained and give that to a Levi. This is termed Ma’aser Rishon.
Talmud Bavli (Yevamos 86b) records an incident that occurred regarding a dispute between Rebbe Akiva and Rebbe Elazar ben Azariah. The exact details are somewhat murky. Further, the Talmud Yerushalmi offers details not mentioned in the Bavli. What follows is one approach to understanding the story.
Rebbe Elazar ben Azariah was of the opinion that Ma’aser Rishon was not meant exclusively for (non-kohen) Levi’im, but could be given to anyone from Shevet Levi, including kohanim as well. He followed his own ruling and regularly frequented a certain garden whose owner would give him Ma’aser Rishon, although he was a kohen.
Rebbe Akiva disagreed and ruled that from a biblical perspective, only Levi’im should receive Ma’aser. Further, during the days of Ezra, Levi’im were penalized; it was decreed that from then on Ma’aser Rishon should be given to the poor. Rebbe Akiva served as gabbai tzedakah and used Ma’aser Rishon to feed the poor that were under his care. Therefore he was pained by the fact that, in his opinion, Rebbe Elazar ben Azariah wrongly took Ma’aser Rishon for himself. That food could have been used to feed the poor. Rebbe Elazar ben Azariah was wealthy and Rebbe Akiva would not have given him any Ma’aser Rishon.
Rebbe Akiva encouraged the owner of the garden to make some modifications. He suggested that he close up the current garden entrance and instead open an entrance on another side. The farmer followed this seemingly innocuous suggestion. Soon after, Rebbe Elazar ben Azariah returned to the garden to receive Ma’aser Rishon. To his dismay, he discovered the change. The only way to reach the new entrance to the garden was through a cemetery. Being a kohen, there was no way that Rebbe Elazar ben Azariah could access the garden. He therefore relinquished any claim to the Ma’aser Rishon and allowed Rebbe Akiva to distribute it to the poor.
Rebbe Akiva then sent his student to Rebbe Elazar ben Azariah to explain his rationale. After listening to the student, Rebbe Elazar ben Azariah conceded that Rebbe Akiva was correct. He should not have taken Ma’aser Rishon from the garden. He made a calculation of the total value of all the Ma’aser Rishon that he had received and returned it to the farmer.
Why did Rebbe Akiva advise the farmer to rearrange the entrances to the garden? Why didn’t he first send his student to try to convince Rebbe Elazar ben Azariah that he was mistaken? It would have saved the farmer an unnecessary expense.
The dispute between Rebbe Akiva and Rebbe Elazar ben Azariah is a well-grounded one. There are proofs for each position. Rebbe Elazar ben Azariah was not the only sage to espouse the view that kohanim could receive Ma’aser Rishon (see Tosfos). Yet Rebbe Akiva reasoned that once the dispute was no longer personally relevant to Rebbe Elazar ben Azariah, he could be convinced of the opposing logic. Rebbe Akiva schemed to move the garden entrance near a cemetery to ensure that in any case Rebbe Elazar ben Azariah would not receive Ma’aser Rishon. That accomplished, the machlokes was now just academic. Rebbe Akiva proceeded to send his student to convince Rebbe Elazar ben Azariah that his position was faulty. Perhaps Rebbe Elazar ben Azariah would have conceded even if he was still receiving Ma’aser Rishon, but Rebbe Akiva thought it prudent to ensure it was no longer personally relevant to him.
Chazal have told us in many places that negios, subconscious motivational factors, have the ability to cloud our judgment. Rebbe Akiva was concerned that perhaps Rebbe Elazar ben Azariah’s thought process was slightly tainted by his desire for material gain. Although such a great sage would surely not make a gross error in judgment, when it came to deciding the halachah in this well-founded debate, perhaps the slight negiah could affect the final p’sak.
Every day, our lives are filled with challenging situations, where we are tested if we will make the right decisions. We have to realize that all too often our decisions are guided by what we would prefer the outcome to be. Perhaps we are subconsciously motivated to choose the path that is easier, or the one that seemingly will afford us more honor or material gain. If we are cognizant of these factors, we will be in a better position to overcome these potential obstacles and arrive at the objectively correct choice.
Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead. He can be contacted at ASebrow@gmail.com.