Maaser Sheni, Chapter Five, Mishnah Fifteen



This mishnah contains some historical information concerning changes in practice initiated by Yohanan the high priest, who lived some time during the late Second Temple period. The first of these changes deals with the tithe confession, and hence this mishnah is brought here.


Mishnah Fifteen

1)      Yohanan the high priest stopped [the recitation] of the confession of the tithes.

2)      He also abolished the “wakers” and the “strikers.”

3)      Until his days the hammer used to beat in Jerusalem.

4)      And in his days one did not have to ask about demai.



Section one: Yohanan ended the recitation of the tithes confession. There are two explanations as to why he put an end to this practice. The first is that in his day people stopped separating tithes and they only separated terumah. Therefore, they couldn’t make the tithes declaration. The second explanation is that at this point in history they were giving the tithes to the priests, and therefore they could no longer say, “And I have given of it to the Levite.”

Section two: Psalm 44:24 reads, “Rouse yourself; why do you sleep O Lord?” The Levites would recite this Psalm when reciting the Psalm over the daily sacrifice (today we recite these as “songs of the day”). These Levites were called the “Wakers.” Yohanan abolished this practice because it gave the impression that God could sleep, or that God was asleep and not listening to their petitions.

“The strikers” refers to the priests who would strike a calf about to be sacrificed in order to stun it and make it easier to sacrifice. Yohanan abolished this practice lest the blow make the animal into a “terefah” an animal with a mortal wound. Such an animal cannot be eaten. Indeed, this issue is still at hand today and is the problem that ritual slaughterers have with administering a blow to the animal before its throat is cut.

Section three: Before Yohanan’s time in Jerusalem you could hear the hammer strike during hol hamoed, the intermediate days of the festival. People were working on things that needed to be done during the festival, and this type of work is permitted on hol hamoed. However, Yohanan was strict and forbade this hammer striking because it gave the impression that work could proceed as usual on hol hamoed. Hearing the hammer might lead others to perform truly prohibited work, so Yohanan abolished the practice.

Section four: Before Yohanan’s time when people bought produce, they had to ask the seller if he had separated the tithes. If he had not, they wouldn’t buy from him because it would cost them to separate all of the tithes. Yohanan decreed that people could buy produce from anyone and they could treat it as demai. This would mean the following: they wouldn’t have to separate terumah, because they could assume that the seller had already taken out terumah. They would have to separate the tithes, but they could eat the tithes themselves since anyone can eat tithes. Since the Levite can’t prove that these tithes were necessary (they may have already been tithed), the owner gets to keep them. They would take out terumah from the tithe and give it to the kohen, and they would have to take out second tithe. But the second tithe they can keep as long as they eat it in Jerusalem. So the only thing that they would have to give away would be the terumat maaser, which is only a tiny percentage of the overall purchase. In this way, Yohanan created a way for people to buy produce from anyone.


Congratulations!  We have finished Maaser Sheni!

It is a tradition at this point to thank God for helping us finish learning the tractate and to commit ourselves to going back and relearning it, so that we may not forget it and so that its lessons will stay with us for all of our lives.

Maaser Sheni was brought to Jerusalem and eaten there. The purpose of this law was to bring people to Jerusalem and to make them bring their produce with them or at least buy food and have a celebratory feast there. Most people would fulfill this on one of the three festivals. Thus, Jerusalem would be full of people, eating good food together and celebrating the Jewish calendar. Today, I think we can fulfill the spirit of this law by visiting Jerusalem and celebrating there with other Jews. We can even return to the colorful markets and buy an array of produce, fish and meat that taste as good as anything that I’ve ever had (although I admit that my culinary experience is somewhat lacking). Jerusalem is like glue that bonds the Jewish people to one another, and it works best when people actually come to Jerusalem. As many of you know, I work in Jerusalem, although I don’t actually live there. Driving to Jerusalem every day can easily become a routine, one that I don’t appreciate enough. So personally, this tractate serves to remind me that I don’t work just in Jerusalem, I work in the Holy City of Jerusalem, where all Jews used to bring their maaser sheni and rejoice together.

Tomorrow we begin Tractate Hallah.