Who is obligated to tithe fruits and vegetables that are harvested?
As anyone who shops in fruit stores in Israel knows, the consumer can check to be sure that terumot and ma’aserot – tithes – were separated by the wholesaler or retailer before sale. It is, therefore, somewhat surprising to learn that only the farmer (or the homeowner with a garden) who harvests for the purpose of eating the produce himself, is obligated by the Torah to separate these tithes. Our practice of separating terumot and ma’aserot from produce that is harvested for commercial sale is only a rabbinic requirement.
Our Gemara quotes a baraita that asks why the markets of Beit Hino were destroyed three years prior to the destruction of Jerusalem. Its answer was that they were careful only with regard to the biblical requirements of tithes, saying that the passage in Sefer (14:22-23) discusses harvest and subsequent consumption of one’s own harvested fruit, thereby excluding a seller or a buyer from the obligation of separating terumot and ma’aserot.
Beit Hino was, apparently, the village that is referred to by the name Bethania, or Beit Ḥanan, just outside of Jerusalem, not far from the Mount of Olives. This village was destroyed in the very first days of the Great Revolt, while the siege and battle for Jerusalem lasted a lengthy period of time, explaining the baraita‘s contention that Beit Hino fell three years prior to Jerusalem.
According to the Iyyun Ya’akov, the three years can be seen as midah k’neged midah – an appropriate punishment for their transgression, since a farmer is given three years to distribute the tithes that he separates. Since they did not take this law seriously, they were punished in accordance with the inappropriateness of their behavior.