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Parashat Teruma: an Uplifting Donation

Parashat Teruma: an Uplifting Donation

How giving teruma lifts us up and brings us closer to G-d. Also a short survey of the laws of demai and a visit to the lost ancient city of Shikmona.

Yoel Yakoby

When many people hear the word "donation" they start feeling uneasy. "What do they want from me now?" they ask themselves, "whether it's marrying off a child, an illness, or financial difficulties—the goal is to extort money from me." While they might give something in the end, it would be hard to say that it is with a heart full of joy.

While this would be the place to relate stories about the great mitzvah of charity, and about how the principle of "charity saves one from death" actually works, here I want to discuss something else entirely.

Teruma appears in another context in the Torah, in parashat Korach. In contrast to the teruma in our parasha, dealing with donations for building the Mishkan—which today, unfortunately, is impossible; the teruma in parashat Korach is still extremely relevant today. The teruma in question is "teruma gedola," the "great offering," the first gift separated from agricultural produce meant to be given to a Kohen (today it cannot be eaten since one must be in a state of ritual purity, and we are all considered tamei meit, defiled from contact with the dead). Afterwards, a Levite receives one-tenth of the remaining produce, from which the Levite sets aside one-tenth (approximately 1/100th of the original produce) for the Kohen. This gift is called in biblical terms ma'aser min hama'aser (tithe of the tithe), or by the Sages, terumat ma'aser, "offering from the tithe."

The verses that discuss the teruma given to the Kohen from one's produce includes the phrase "והרמותם ממנו תרומת ה" literally rendered, "and you will lift up from it the offering of G-d." We see here that the word teruma is from the word harama, to be uplifted. The gift the grower gives to the Kohen actually raises up the produce and the farmer, in the process. If until now the farmer was only concerned about his own produce, money, and needs, now he transforms into different, more exalted individual who is now closer to G-d.

The middle path: the best way to go

In contrast to what we might think, the Torah's goal is not that we give as much as possible, without limit, rather—like with all traits—to take the middle path. That is, not to be stingy and tight fisted, but also not to give up all our money either. The Rambam explains that the Torah, with its upright laws and commandments helps us achieve this middle ground. For example, it requires us to give teruma from our produce or for sacred objects (like the Mishkan), and donate money for other charitable purposes. However, we are not expected to give everything we have, since this is not good either. The Torah has us give a portion that is not too big but also not insignificant in order to educate us to become givers, but at the same time takes care that we also do not become wasteful and give up all we have.

Teruma, therefore, bears this name since it uplifts man and directs him to give, in the proper measure, in order to rise up and draw closer and closer to G-d, Who has showered us with plenty from His outstretched hand.

A tale of rimim

Haifa, 3901 (150 CE). While Haifa is a small town, home to many fisherman, Thursdays at the city gates there is a farmers' market with produce from the entire area. Yochanan is sent by his mother to pick up several groceries she needs for Shabbat. He loves to go shopping, not only because he likes helping his mother but also since she lets him taste some of the sweet fruit he brings home.

This time he knows that when he comes home his younger siblings will be especially excited. He brought back a delicacy sold inexpensively, since it comes from Shikmona, the neighboring town north of Haifa: rimim. These are not worms, G-d forbid; the Jews of Haifa are G-d fearing and meticulously observe the laws of kashrut. These rimim are tart jujubas, a favorite of Yochanan's younger siblings.

On his way home, Yochanan runs into his childhood friend that many love to eat, including Yochan's siblings.

But who comes to meet Yochanan?  Yehoshua, several years his senior. Now Yehoshua is studying in Usha with the great sage Rabbi Yehuda bar Ilai. While Usha is not too far away, just on the other side of Mt. Carmel, but Yehoshua does not come home often to his parent's home in Haifa; he prefers studying at the yeshiva. Whenever they meet, Yehoshua teaches Yochanan new things that he learned.

The two embrace. Yochanan realizes that Yehoshua has just arrived from Usha. "You must be famished," he says to Yehoshua, "Why don’t you taste some rimim? I just bought a lot of them and they were very cheap." Yehoshua is taken aback, "We can't eat them without tithing them first—they are demai!"

Demai is the term for agricultural produce taken from an am ha'aretz. An am ha'aretz is a Jew who observes Torah and mitzvot but not meticulously. The am ha'aretz gives the first gift, teruma gedola, to a Kohen; he knows that whoever eats produce that teruma has not been taken from is liable for death from Heaven. However, he does not always separate the rest of the tithes and bring them to their proper destinations: ma'aser rishon (which includes terumat ma'aser), and ma'aser sheni. While most amei ha'aretz do tithe, since they don't always do so, Yochanan Kohen Gadol (apparently a Hasmonean king, grandson of Matityahu) ruled that one must separate terumat ma'aser and ma'aser sheni from all produce from an am ha'aretz (but one need not take ma'aser rishon, since it has no special sanctity).

Yochanan is intimately familiar with the laws of demai; his father taught him. At home, they buy most of their produce; his father is a fisherman and does not have time to farm. "But these rimim are exempt from demai," Yochanan protests, "unlike most fruit, rimim generally come from wild, ownerless trees, so they are exempt from terumot and ma'aserot!" "True," retorts Yehoshua, "but the rimim you bought are special—I noticed that immediately. These rimim are from Shikmona, where farmers grow them and they are not wild. That is why Rabbi Yehuda rules that they should be treated as demai.

As usual, Yochanan is happy to learn this brand new halacha from Yehoshua, and relieved that he did not eat anything problematic kashrut-wise. He runs home to inform his father about the latest updates from Rabbi Yehuda's beit midrash.

"We are lenient with demai, wild figs, and jujubas … Rabbi Yehuda says: 'all jujubas are exempt except for the jujubas of Shikmona'." (Demai 1:1)

Shimkona, the lost city

Shikmona is an ancient city found today in the modern Haifa district, near the Israeli National Institute of Oceanography, on the sea coast. Today it has become a part of modern Haifa, but it was actually founded long before ancient Haifa, and was north of it. Apparently Shikmona was established in the Canaanite era, and King David captured it from the Phoenicians. A jug was discovered from the area, dating back to the times of King David or Shlomo, bearing the inscription lemalkiel, probably the name of the Israelite clerk in charge there. The city was destroyed in the time of Pharaoh Shoshenq I (Shishak)'s war campaign in the Land of Israel, but was resettled during the time of the Israelite kingdom. At this period there were many oil presses, which indicate a highly developed olive oil industry. There were also many small icons found there from the period; it is no wonder that at that time, Eliyahu HaNavi calls the Jewish People and the "prophets" of ba'al to the famous showdown on Mt. Carmel, to remind all the confused populace who the true G-d is. The Israelite Shikmona was destroyed by the king of Ashur, along with the rest of the Israelite kingdom.

Shikmona was resettled, but this time by gentiles (a sword was discovered there dating back to the Persian era, similar to those from Shushan, Persian's capital. At that time, purple dye was manufactured in the area), but was recaptured by the Hasmoneans later on. Many mosaic floors were discovered at the site dating back to Talmudic times, one bearing the Greek inscription: "this place is from the times of joy." However, the joyous times of Shikmona were over upon the Arab conquest (7 CE), and the city ceased to exist—until a few decades ago, when the town became a part of Haifa, Israel's third largest city.