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Please begin with an informative title:

In this week’s parsha Re’eh we have the commandment of maaser sheni, the second tithe, in the fifth aliyah, part of chapter 14:

כב עַשֵּׂר תְּעַשֵּׂר, אֵת כָּל-תְּבוּאַת זַרְעֶךָ, הַיֹּצֵא הַשָּׂדֶה, שָׁנָה שָׁנָה.  כג וְאָכַלְתָּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בַּמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר-יִבְחַר לְשַׁכֵּן שְׁמוֹ שָׁם, מַעְשַׂר דְּגָנְךָ תִּירֹשְׁךָ וְיִצְהָרֶךָ, וּבְכֹרֹת בְּקָרְךָ וְצֹאנֶךָ:  לְמַעַן תִּלְמַד, לְיִרְאָה אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ--כָּל-הַיָּמִים.  כד וְכִי-יִרְבֶּה מִמְּךָ הַדֶּרֶךְ, כִּי לֹא תוּכַל שְׂאֵתוֹ--כִּי-יִרְחַק מִמְּךָ הַמָּקוֹם, אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לָשׂוּם שְׁמוֹ שָׁם:  כִּי יְבָרֶכְךָ, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ.  כה וְנָתַתָּה, בַּכָּסֶף; וְצַרְתָּ הַכֶּסֶף, בְּיָדְךָ, וְהָלַכְתָּ אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם, אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בּוֹ.  כו וְנָתַתָּה הַכֶּסֶף בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר-תְּאַוֶּה נַפְשְׁךָ בַּבָּקָר וּבַצֹּאן, וּבַיַּיִן וּבַשֵּׁכָר, וּבְכֹל אֲשֶׁר תִּשְׁאָלְךָ, נַפְשֶׁךָ; וְאָכַלְתָּ שָּׁם, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, וְשָׂמַחְתָּ, אַתָּה וּבֵיתֶךָ

22 Thou shalt surely tithe all the increase of thy seed, that which is brought forth in the field year by year. 23 And thou shalt eat before the LORD thy God, in the place which He shall choose to cause His name to dwell there, the tithe of thy corn, of thy wine, and of thine oil, and the firstlings of thy herd and of thy flock; that thou mayest learn to fear the LORD thy God always. 24 And if the way be too long for thee, so that thou art not able to carry it, because the place is too far from thee, which the LORD thy God shall choose to set His name there, when the LORD thy God shall bless thee; 25 then shalt thou turn it into money, and bind up the money in thy hand, and shalt go unto the place which the LORD thy God shall choose. 26 And thou shalt bestow the money for whatsoever thy soul desireth, for oxen, or for sheep, or for wine, or for strong drink, or for whatsoever thy soul asketh of thee; and thou shalt eat there before the LORD thy God, and thou shalt rejoice, thou and thy household.

(1917 Jewish Publication Society Translation)

The agricultural tithing system (for plant foods) works something like this: First, a small amount – defined by the rabbinic tradition as 1/40 to 1/60 – of produce is give to a priest (kohein); this is called terumah. It can only be eaten by priests and their families in a ritually pure state. It is a serious sin to eat any food prior to the separation of the terumah. Then, the first tithe, of 10%, is given to a Levite; this is called maaser rishon. Anyone can eat that food (with the permission of course of the Levite owner!) – once 10% of that 10% is given from the Levite to a kohein; this is called terumat maaser. What happens next depends on the year of the seven year shmittah cycle. During years 1, 2, 4, and 5, a second tithe of 10% of what is remaining is taken and it must be taken to Jerusalem to be eaten; this is called maaser sheni. (The passage above is about how to get out of that obligation.) In years 3 and 6, the second tithe of 10% is given to the poor; this is called maaser oni and anyone can eat it with the permission of the poor person. During year 7 there are no tithes at all because of the shemitta year; all shemitta produce belongs to God!

What we learn in this passage is that if you don’t want to take the food to Jerusalem, you can redeem it (at fair market value) with money. The produce is then permitted to be eaten by anyone (with the permission of the owner) and the redemption money is then taken to Jerusalem by the owner, who must spend it on food to eat there.
We now have an apparent inconsistency between the Torah and known historical/archeological sources. Details below the fold.

Intro

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What would the people first hearing the Torah know about money? It hadn’t been invented by the time the Torah was given according to religious sources (see https://en.wikipedia.org/...) and would not be for hundreds of years! Here it is important to look at the actual Hebrew text: The word that means “money” is actually כסף (kesef), which literally means “silver”. Silver has been around, and used by humans, for millennia.

So how is it that every English translation translates silver as money (or coins) when money didn’t exist? It is because we Jews do not take the Bible literally, and we follow the traditional rabbinic interpretation regarding the meaning of Biblical passages. And in this case, the rabbinic tradition is clear that you need to use actual money (coins) rather than simple silver for this redemption. Here are examples:

Just two weeks ago, everyone who is learning a page of the Babylonian Talmud every day saw this passage, from Pesachim 35b, regarding with what one may fulfill the obligation of eating matzah on the first night of Pesach:

ולא במעשר שני והקדש שלא נפדו וכו': פשיטא לעולם דנפדו ומאי לא נפדו שלא נפדו כהלכתן מעשר שני שפדאו על גב אסימון דרחמנא אמר וצרת הכסף דבר שיש לו צורה

NOR WITH SECOND TITHE OR HEKDESH WHICH HAVE NOT BEEN REDEEMED etc. That is obvious? — It is necessary only where they have been redeemed; and what does they ‘HAVE NOT BEEN REDEEMED’ mean? That they have not been redeemed with their regulations. [Thus:] it is second tithe which he redeemed with uncoined metal, for the Divine Law states, And thou shalt bind up [we-zarta] the money in thine hand, [implying], that which bears a figure [zurah]. (Soncino translation.)

The Talmud is stating that if you redeemed your second tithe produce on ordinary silver, rather than coins that have been stamped with some sort of government imprint (usually of the King, although of course Jewish coins would never have the figure of a person on them), the redemption was not done properly. Almost identical language appears twice more in the Babylonian Talmud, in tractates Shabat and Eruvim in discussions of other issues.

What is going on here? A clue appears in a fourth tractate of the Babylonian Talmud, in
Bava Metzia 47b, on rules regarding exchanges of coins:

מאי אסימון אמר רב מעות הניתנות בסימן לבית המרחץ מיתיבי אין מחללין מעשר שני על אסימון ולא על מעות הניתנות בסימן לבית המרחץ מכלל דאסימון לאו מעות הניתנות בסימן לבית המרחץ וכי תימא פרושי קמפרש והא לא תנא הכי מחללין מעשר שני על אסימון דברי רבי דוסא וחכמים אומרים אין מחללין ושוין שאין מחללין על מעות הניתנות בסימן לבית המרחץ אלא אמר רבי יוחנן מאי אסימון פולסא ואזדא רבי יוחנן לטעמיה דאמר ר' יוחנן רבי דוסא ורבי ישמעאל אמרו דבר אחד רבי דוסא הא דאמרן רבי ישמעאל מאי היא דתניא וצרת הכסף בידך לרבות כל דבר הנצרר ביד דברי רבי ישמעאל רבי עקיבא אומר לרבות כל דבר שיש עליו צורה

UNCOINED METAL [ASIMON]  ACQUIRES COINED. What IS ASIMON? — Said Rab: Coins that are presented as tokens  at the baths.  An objection is raised: The second tithe may not be redeemed by asimon, nor by coins that are presented as tokens at the baths; proving that ASIMON is not coins that are presented as tokens at the baths. And should you answer that it is a definition, surely the Tanna does not teach thus; [for we learnt:] The second tithe may be redeemed by ‘asimon’, this is R. Dosa's view. The Sages maintain: It may not. Yet both agree that it may not be redeemed with coins that are presented as tokens at the baths. But, said R. Johanan. What is ‘asimon’? A disk. Now, R. Johanan follows his views [expressed elsewhere]. For R. Johanan said: R. Dosa and R. Ishmael both taught the same thing. R. Dosa: the statement just quoted. And what is R. Ishmael's dictum? — That which has been taught: And thou shalt bind up the money in thine hand; this is to include everything that can be bound up in one's hand — that is R. Ishmael's view. R. Akiba said: It is to include everything which bears a figure. (Soncino translation.)

An “asimon” is an unminted slug, simple silver. Again, the ruling is the same: You need a real coin, real money, to redeem second tithe produce. But for the first time we have a contrary opinion, that of Rabbi Dosa, whose opinion would seem to be more consistent with the simple meaning (pshat) of the text. Rabbi Ishmael follows Rabbi Dosa, but Rabbi Akiva and the Sages don’t.

Why not? We get a clue from a Mishnah in Eduyot, chapter 3, mishnah 2. There is no  context stated except that it is one of a series of rulings by Rabbi Dosa ben Harkonos.

מחללין מעשר שני על אסימון, דברי רבי דוסא; וחכמים אוסרין.

ONE MAY EXCHANGE [ PRODUCE OF] SECOND TITHE FOR UNCOINED METAL.20 THIS IS THE OPINION OF R. DOSA. BUT THE SAGES SAY: ONE MAY NOT SO EXCHANGE IT. (Soncino translation.)

The material in tractate Eduyot is all from a list of testimonies of traditions that reliable witnesses stated regarding Jewish religious law. Rabbi Dosa, who had been alive when the Second Temple was still standing, reported that it was permissible for second-tithe produce to be redeemed on unminted metal (asimon). But the other rabbis present overruled him! What was going on?

I think that the clue may be found in the most obvious place to look regarding the laws of the second tithe, in the Jerusalem Talmud tractate Maaser Sheni. The Mishnah seems clear:

Mishnah, Maaser Sheni, Perek 1:
אין מחללין מעשר שני על אסימון
One may not redeem maaser sheni on a slug. (My translation.)
But we find in the gemara Yerushalmi that things aren’t so simple – that this is actually a dispute among Rabbi Dosa and the sages – the same one recorded in Eduyot:
מתני' דלא כרבי דוסא דתני מחללין מעשר שני על אסימון דברי רבי דוסא וחכמים אוסרין.
It was taught in a baraita: One may redeem maaser sheni on a slug, the words of Rabbi Dosa.  And the rabbis forbid. (My translation.)
And the gemara in the Jerusalem Talmud, which I will not attempt to translate literally as it is difficult Palestinian Aramaic, continues with an extended discussion in which one of the main points is that they want to make it easier to make commerce happen in Jerusalem. Money, whose value is accepted, furthers this goal. (Among the issues are the use of coins from other countries, and the use of coins from previous regimes that are officially no longer valid.) Unminted slugs, however, require assessment of value and make it more difficult for people to purchase things like food. For all the Aramaic readers, here is the remainder of the passage:
מה טעמא דרבי דוסא (דברים כ) וצרת הכסף דבר שהוא נצרר מחבירו שיש לו צורה ויוצא על גב צורתו.  רבי יוסי בשם רבי יוחנן דברי רבי דוסא מחללין מעשר על ליטרא של כסף אילו אמר כסף הוינן אמרין כשם שאמר כסף כך אמר זהב.  אילו אמר כסף הוינן אמרין להוציא שברי קערות ותמחויין הוי מהן ליטרא של כסף על אסימון.  הכל מודין שאין מחללין אותו על מעות הנתונות לאולייר הדא דתימר בדרך שהן יפין אצל הולייר אבל בדרך שהן יפין אצל התורמסר מחלל.  מטבע שנפסל והמלכות מקבלתו רבי יוסי בשם רבי יונתן כאסימון.  רבי חייא בשם רבי יונתן כמטבע של מלכים הראשונים

דף ד,א פרק א הלכה א גמרא  נימר אם היה יוצא על גב צורתו מחלל ואם לאו אינו מחלל.  מטבע שמרד כגון בן כוזיבא אינו מחלל.  היו לו מעות של סכנה אתא עובדא קומי רבי אימי אמר יוליך הנייה לים המלח.  היה לו מעות של דיסקניס רבי יעקב בר זבדי בשם רבי אבהו מחללין כדרך שהן יפות אצל התורמסר.  ביקש להוציאן מחללן כדרך שהוא מחלל עליהן.  תני אין מחללין אותו לא על המעות שהן בבבל ולא על המעות שבבבל כן לא על המעות שכן בבבל בעומד בבבל ולא על המעות שבבבל כן בעומד כן היו לו מעות מבבל לבבל והוא עומד כאן

דף ד,ב פרק א הלכה א גמרא  נימר אם היתה דרך פתוחה מחלל ואם לאו אינו מחלל וטבבו כן.  אמר רבי אבין כל המטביעות היו יוצאות בירושלים מפני כן על שם (תהילים מח) יפה נוף משוש כל הארץ.  יכול אם היו לו מעות בהר המלך ובקצרה מחללן עליהן.  ת"ל (דברים יד) וצרת הכסף בידך מהו בידך ברשותך.  ר' יונה בעי נפל כיסו לבור ובו מאה ריבוא והיה יכול להוציא חמשים ריבוא להעלותן אותן חמשים ריבוא כמו שהן ברשותו:

(I’m not going to try to translate this Palestinian Aramaic and run the risk of putting an error into the internet; unfortunately there are no online translations of the Jerusalem Talmud.)

We get a hint of the motivation of the Jewish sages here. They accepted that a proper role for government included setting and insuring the value of money, and that doing so improved peoples’ lives, no anarchism or libertarianism here, just as it is absent from the remainder of rabbinic writings! What clearly happened was that at one point it was ok to use plain silver metal to redeem second tithe produce, but as coins became commonly used throughout the Middle East, people used money. At some point – at the latest on the day when Rabbi Dosa was giving his testimony regarding the old tradition – the rabbis forbade the use of unminted silver and required real coins. By that time is unlikely that anyone would have still wanted to use unminted metal except for the purpose of fraud.

Thus we learn two things from this analysis. First, that sometimes an apparent conflict between the Torah and history isn’t a conflict at all once we review the rabbinic tradition. And second, that the rabbis were concerned for the economic welfare of the Jewish people and were willing to institute reasonable decrees that didn’t follow anarchist or libertarian principles. Ayn Rand or Emma Goldman would be unimpressed, but the rest of us should be!

Extended (Optional)

Originally posted to charliehall2 on Thu Aug 01, 2013 at 09:13 PM PDT.

Also republished by Street Prophets and Elders of Zion.

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