In the course of discussing how tithes and other agricultural requirements can be fulfilled in a situation where it is not clear who is the true owner of a given field, our Gemara reviews the various requirements of tithing and raises an unusual perspective.
Under ordinary circumstances, a farmer will separate:
1. Teruma Gedola – a small portion of his harvest that is given to a kohen
2. Ma’aser Rishon – one-tenth of the remaining produce, which is given to a levi
3a. Ma’aser Sheni – one-tenth of the remaining produce, which is taken to Jerusalem and consumed there. This tithe is given during the years 1, 2, 4 and 5 of a seven year cycle.
3b. Ma’aser Ani – in years that Ma’aser Sheni is not given (years 3 and 6), one-tenth of the produce is given to the poor.
In our case, where it is not clear whether the farmer actually owns the field, and the first fruits – the bikkurim – are brought, in the event that he does not own the field and cannot call the fruits bikkurim, they can still be given to the kohen as teruma gedola (which belongs to the kohen), as ma’aser sheni (as long as the kohen eats it in Jerusalem), or as ma’aser ani (if the kohen is poor). The only case that is questionable is how ma’aser rishon – which belongs to the levi’im – can be given to a kohen. The Gemara suggests that this would work according to Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya who rules that the ma’aser rishon can be given to a kohen.
Most of the rishonim understand Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya’s rule to be based on his understanding that ma’aser rishon can be given to anyone who is from the Tribe of Levi, a category that includes kohanim as well as levi’im. The Rashbam suggests that Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya actually requires that ma’aser rishon be given to a kohen rather than a levi, following the penalty placed on levi’im by Ezra HaSofer, who was upset with the levi’im because they did not join the aliya movement that he led, returning the First Temple exiles back to Israel.