Ethics Now & Then 84 – Avot 5:10 -11 and 12

Pirkei Avot 5:10-11

Seven kinds of affliction come upon the world for seven main types of transgression:
(1) If some give their tithes and some do not, a famine comes through drought: some go hungry and some have enough. (2) If all have decided to give no tithes, a famine comes through tumult [panic] and drought. (3) And if they resolve not to take off the [challah] dough [for the cohen/priest] a famine of extermination comes. (4) Pestilence comes upon the world on acount of death-penalties prescribed in the Torah which are not given to the human tribunal to inflict, and on account of [forbidden use of] the produce of the Sabbatical year [Shmitah]. (5) The sword comes upon the world on account of the delay of justice and the perversion of justice, and because of those who expound the Torah at variance with halacha (normative interpretations of law). (6) Ferocious beasts come upon the world on account of false oaths and the desecration of the [Holy] Name. (7) Exile comes upon the world on account of idolatrous worship, incest and adultery, bloodshed and [the failure to observe Shmitah] the Sabbatical year of the soil.*

Pirkei Avot 5:12

At four periods pestilence tends to increase: in the fourth year, in the seventh [year of Shmitah], with the departure of the seventh, and upon the departure of The Festival [Ha’ChagSuccoth] every year.  It increases in the fourth year, on account of [failure to give] the tithe of the poor in the sixth; [it increases] with the departure of the seventh, because of [misuse of] the produce of the seventh [sabbatical] year; [it increases] upon the departure of the Festival [of Succoth] every year, on account of the robbery of the “gifts of the poor.”*

Star of David ENT


These are intense and challenging verses. It would be beyond the scope of the present context to explore each transgression and result described;  we can, however, step back for an overview and to gain some understanding of certain principles that are addressed.

The land referred to by the Sages is Israel, God’s set apart and holy Land; in relation to which, for example, the command of the Shmitah or Sabbatical year is given. The term used in general, however, is the world – or the earth. God formed the first human, Adam, from the earth – adamah (Heb.) This indicates that the actions people, groups and governments take have a corresponding effect on the earth. It is interesting to note that in lands where the Word of God is upheld and the laws of justice, righteousness and morality are implemented, the earth thrives. Trees and flowers bloom and crops are grown. The converse – vast desert and wasteland – is seen in lands that oppose the God of the Bible.

Verses 10 and 11 boil down, essentially, to the well-known adage, “You reap what you sow.” This can apply to an individual, to a community of people and to a nation. The Sages here categorize a difference between if “some” transgress or if “all” transgress, in the latter case the results are more onerous and widespread. Often, disasters such as disease, floods or famine are labelled as ‘punishments from God,’ as if He somehow delights in wreaking vengeance on the wicked – a natural human inclination. Rather, just as He has set natural, physical laws in place, such as the rotation of the planets and gravity, so, also, has He set spiritual laws in place, such as morality and justice. We  find harmony and well-being when we adhere to the physical laws and breathe fresh air, eat healthy food, dress appropriately etc.. In the same way, we find spiritual joy and well-being when we adhere to His spiritual laws of compassionate justice and moral integrity. To do so, however, means that we need to learn them and know them, revere and implement them.


(i) Offerings. A central issue the Sages address is that of tithing. The subject also is related to the seventh year of Shmitah –  the sabbatical year when the land was not to be worked but left to lie fallow (Lev. 25:1-7). At that time most people were farmers. During the six working years, people were instructed to separate portions of their crops or produce, called terumah (offerings) to give to the cohanim (the priests who had no land or income of their own but served God in the Temple or community). Scripture does not state the exact amount for these offerings, however ” …a fortieth part was considered generous, a sixtieth niggardly, and a fiftieth [two percent] a just portion.”** We can apply this, in modern times, to those who gain income from regular work who, then, can give offerings of support to those laboring in the fields of the Kingdom who do not receive direct income.

(ii) The First Tithe – ma’asser ha’rishonThis is the tithe of one tenth (ma’asser is from the root word esser, ten) of one’s harvest, given to the wider work of the Kingdom. We see the principle first mentioned in Genesis 14:18-20, with our father Abraham’s dramatic and meaningful encounter with Melchizedek (meaning my King of Righteousness).

And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. (He was priest of God Most High.) And he blessed him and said, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
Possessor of heaven and earth;
and blessed be God Most High,who has delivered your enemies into your hand!”
And Abram gave him a tenth of everything.

(iii) The Second Tithe – ma’asser ha’sheni. Next, a tenth of whatever remained was set aside for the worker and his family towards buying food and covering other expenses on their travels up to Jerusalem to celebrate the three pilgrimage Festivals of Pesach ( Passover), Shavuot (Pentecost) and Succoth (Tabernacles). Now there is a thought for today – to set aside and save a “second tithe” for a trip up to Jerusalem to celebrate a Festival!

In the third and sixth year, this second tithe was renamed ma’asser ani – the tithe for the poor, which was kept and donated specifically for the poor and needy in Jerusalem and all  Israel.

ShmitahEvery seventh year, called shmitah, no planting was done and, therefore, no harvests were gathered. From what grew naturally, the farmer could take only what he and his family needed and the rest was left for the poor in the community to take for themselves.

All these laws are to remind the people of Israel that the Land was His, as is all the earth, and “…the land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for Mine is the Land for you are strangers and sojourners with Me” (Leviticus 25:23). Our life on this earth truly is but a sojourn and the laws of God all serve to remind us of that reality, and, in addition, of the fact that He is the One true owner and  Master of all.

5:3 And if they resolve not to take off the [challah] dough [for the cohen/priest] a famine of extermination comes.

Special mention is made in this verse of the separation of the challah from the dough. The two special loaves baked for Shabbat also are called challah. They serve a similar purpose in reminding us of God’s provision of manna – bread from Heaven – all the years of the journey through the wilderness and of HIs injunction to collect a double portion on the sixth day so as to not work and  ‘harvest’ any on the seventh day. Once the Israelites arrived and settled in the Promised Land and began to grow grain and make their own bread, the law applied, “…when you eat of the bread of the land, you shall set apart a portion for the Lord, the first of your dough you shall set apart as the terumah, the portion from the threshing floor” (Numbers 15:19-23).

Again no specific size or amount is mentioned. Any bread that is baked from flour of the five grains of Israel (barley, rye, oats wheat and spelt) and is over 2lbs 11oz in weight should have a small piece of dough separated from the mixture – before it is shaped and baked. This is considered an offering to the Lord, who …”brings the wind, gathers clouds, sends the rains, brings the dew, causes plants to blossom and fruit to ripen – and He said to said aside only one part in ten.” *** This ‘challah from the dough’ is considered holy and should not be eaten but disposed of appropriately. In the time of the Sages this could be given to a cohen in the Temple . Today, it often is wrapped in foil and burnt in the oven separately, as a ‘burnt offering’ to ensure it won’t be eaten, before being thrown out.

When people forget that God is the true Provider of all good things, including man’s staple food, and see themselves as having power and control over all things, His blessing is rejected and “…the heavens over your head shall be brass” (Deuteronomy 28:23). No rain will fall and the ensuing famine could lead to the hunger and starvation of many. How much better to give thanks with grateful hearts and to say, in effect:

“Lord of the Universe, I worked and toiled for this food. But, I did not create the soil and the seed, or bring rain and sunshine. I could not force the wheat to grow. All this is from Your hand and I thank You for our ‘partnership’ and for giving me strength to do my share to bring forth bread from Your bountiful earth for my and my family’s needs. We pray that, in Your mercy You will provide for those whose trust is in You and who might not have food to eat today.”****

Star of David ENT


* Translations of these verse from Irving M. Bunim’s Ethics from Sinai, Vol 3.

** Mishnah, Terumoth iv 3.

*** Midrash Tanchuma, Re’eh 16

****Adapted from Irving M.Bunim, Ethics from Sinai, Vol 3, 126

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