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Devarim 14:28
כח. מִקְצֵה | שָׁלשׁ שָׁנִים תּוֹצִיא אֶת כָּל מַעְשַׂר תְּבוּאָתְךָ בַּשָּׁנָה הַהִוא וְהִנַּחְתָּ בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ׃
"At the end of three years, you shall take out all the tithe of your crop in that year and place it in your cities."

Devarim 12:17-18
לֹא תוּכַל לֶאֱכֹל בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ מַעְשַׂר דְּגָנְךָ וְתִירשְׁךָ וְיִצְהָרֶךָ וּבְכֹרֹת בְּקָרְךָ וְצֹאנֶךָ וְכָל נְדָרֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר תִּדֹּר וְנִדְבֹתֶיךָ וּתְרוּמַת יָדֶךָ׃
י אִם לִפְנֵי יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ תֹּאכְלֶנּוּ בַּמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בּוֹ אַתָּה וּבִנְךָ וּבִתֶּךָ וְעַבְדְּךָ וַאֲמָתֶךָ וְהַלֵּוִי אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ וְשָׂמַחְתָּ לִפְנֵי יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּכֹל מִשְׁלַח יָדֶךָ׃
You may not eat within your cities the tithe of your grain, or of your wine, or of your oil, or the firstborn of your cattle or of your sheep, or any of your vows that you will vow, or your donations, or the separation by your hand. But you shall eat them before the Lord, your God, in the place the Lord, your God, will choose you, your son, your daughter, your manservant, your maidservant, and the Levite who is in your cities, and you shall rejoice before the Lord, your God, in all your endeavors.

Rashi says, [You may not eat within your gates…] the firstborn of your cattle: This prohibition is addressed to the kohanim [in contrast to “the tithe of your grain,” since Israelites were never permitted to eat the firstborn, even within the walls of Jerusalem]. - however (and I may be mistaken), the context seems to have laws applying to everyone equally.

Bamidbar 18:26
וְאֶל הַלְוִיִּם תְּדַבֵּר וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם כִּי תִקְחוּ מֵאֵת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת הַמַּעֲשֵׂר אֲשֶׁר נָתַתִּי לָכֶם מֵאִתָּם בְּנַחֲלַתְכֶם וַהֲרֵמֹתֶם מִמֶּנּוּ תְּרוּמַת יְהֹוָה מַעֲשֵׂר מִן הַמַּעֲשֵׂר׃
Speak to the Levites and tell them, "When you take the tithe from the children of Israel which I have given you from them as your inheritance, you shall set aside from it a gift for the Lord, a tithe of the tithe.

Question: Three different passages seem to be speaking of three different "kinds" of ma'aser with three different purposes. Does the Torah command to give 20% yearly and 30% every third year, or are some of these these laws the same, or have I misunderstood completely?

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Welcome to Mi Yodeya and thank you for bringing this question here! –  Monica Cellio Nov 11 '13 at 13:38
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1 Answer

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Welcome to J.SE, good questions.

Suppose I start with 100 lbs. of flour.

First I give a small amount, known as Terumah, to the Kohen. That leaves 98 lbs. of flour. I tithe the remaining flour (9.8 lbs); that's called Maaser Rishon, and it's given to the Levites. (Rambam laws of Maaser 1:1). The Levite then tithes what he gets, i.e. 0.98 lbs of flour, and gives that to the Kohen. (That's what you're seeing in BaMidbar 18:26.)

Of my remaining 88.2 lbs of flour, I'm supposed to tithe it once more (~8.8 lbs of flour). This second tithing is called, logically, Ma'aser Sheni. Usually I'm supposed to take it to Jerusalem and eat it myself. (Rambam laws of Maaser Sheni 1:1). However, Devarim 14:28 is saying that every three years, it instead belongs "in my local cities" (i.e. not Jerusalem); and 14:29 continues that it belongs to "the foreigner, the orphan, the widow" -- i.e. the poor. Thus, some years I give my Maaser Sheni to the local poor, and other years I take it to Jerusalem and eat it.

That brings us to Devarim 12:17-18, which is telling the people that G-d would pick a centralized location for sacrifices in the future (this turned out to be Jerusalem), and they have to respect that. (In fact, several times in Jewish history people sadly attempted to make a pseudo-Jerusalem elsewhere.) It's saying that anything that is supposed to be eaten in Jerusalem must be eaten in Jerusalem, and you're in trouble if you eat it elsewhere:

You many not eat in your local cities [i.e. not-Jerusalem] your firstborn animals, your tithes, or the sacrifices you've pledged. Instead, bring those to the place before G-d and eat them there.

Clearly the tithe referenced here is Maaser Sheni in normal years.

As for the firstborn: a firstborn cow, sheep, or goat is always given to the kohen, and he must eat it in Jerusalem. (If it's unblemished, it also has to be processed as a sacrifice, but he still can eat the meat.) So the Torah is saying, "anything that is supposed to be eaten in Jerusalem, don't eat it elsewhere! Tithes, firstborn, whatever." It was understood that "tithes" was addressing the regular Jew, and "firstborn" addressing the kohen. (Just like "in preparation for landing, please stow your briefcases and purses" -- if you have a purse, that statement's directed at you, if not it's not.)

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Thanks for a simple and logical answer! –  Niobius Nov 12 '13 at 7:48
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