Seder Zeraim (Agriculture)

Though most Jews no longer live in an agricultural society, some of the mishnaic laws related to agriculture remain directly relevant for contemporary urban and suburban lives.

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The Order of Tithes

To synthesize these scattered commands into a coherent system, the Mishnah assigns a set order and quantity to each of the tithes. The Mishnah defines the order of the tithes as follows:

Terumah:  A gift to the kohanim of between 1/60th and 1/40th of one's crop

Ma'aser rishon:  A gift to the levites of 1/10th of the crop that remains after

Terumah has been separated. The levite, in turn, gives the kohen 1/10th of this gift.

Ma'aser sheni: During the first, second, fourth and fifth years of the seven-year cycle, 1/10th of the remaining produce is set aside to be brought to Jerusalem and eaten there by owner.

Ma'aser Oni: During the third and sixth years of the seven-year cycle, a tithe for the poor replaces the Ma'aser sheni.

Categories of Produce to be Tithed

The Mishnah is most concerned with defining specific laws for vague biblical commandments. Thus, Tractate Ma'aserot, the tractate that offers general rules about tithes, begins:

"[The sages] established a general rule about ma'aserot: anything that is food and is guarded and grows from the earth is subject to ma'aserot…When do fruits become subject to ma'aserot? Figs from the time they have been gathered and left for twenty-four hours [and are ready to eat], grapes and wild grapes when they begin to mature, sumac and mulberries when they become red, and all the red fruits when they become red."(1:1-2)

The Bible specifies neither the types of produce subject to tithing nor the appropriate time for tithing. The Mishnah eliminates this ambiguity by detailing the process of tithing and by defining the categories of food that need to be tithed.

Tractate Berakhot (Blessings)

As its name suggests, Berakhot focuses on the laws of prayer--the format and order of prayers, the times for reciting certain prayers, and the appropriate blessings for various foods and occasions. It is not clear why this tractate appears in Seder Zeraim. Some suggest that the inclusion in this tractate of blessings over different types of produce justifies its inclusion in the seder devoted to agricultural laws. However, the majority of Tractate Berakhot addresses other issues of prayer and blessing; the fact that some of the blessings included in the tractate are agriculturally-connected does not seem to offer sufficient explanation for the inclusion of this tractate in Seder Zeraim.

The Relevance of Seder Zera'im For Modern Jews

Of the tractates in Seder Zeraim, Tractate Berakhot remains most obviously relevant and most studied today, as prayers and blessings continue to play a central role in Jewish ritual practice. The sixth chapter, which focuses on blessings for different types of food, and the ninth chapter, which designates blessings for certain occasions, are good starting points for explorations of the place of blessings in Judaism, and of the theology that underlies our system of blessings and prayers.

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Rabbi Jill Jacobs

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. She previously served as the Rabbi-in-Residence for the Jewish Funds for Justice.