As we have learned, a portion of the annual produce is set aside for the kohanim and is called teruma. Aside from the teruma, ten percent of the harvest is set aside for the levi’im, as ma’aser (tithes). Our Gemara quotes a baraita where we learn that this is only the opinion of Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya rules that ma’aser need not be given only to a levite, as it can also be given to a kohen, since the priestly families are all from the tribe of Levi.
This was not simply a theoretical discussion between the two Sages; the Gemara relates that Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya – who, himself, was a kohen – regularly took ma’aser from a certain field. When Rabbi Akiva heard this, he arranged for the entrance to the field to be switched so that it opened onto a cemetery, which effectively barred Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya from benefiting from it (because of the prohibition for a kohen to come into contact with the dead). Finding himself cut off from a source of sustenance that he felt was rightfully his, Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya is quoted as saying, “Akiva has his tarmil, but how will I survive?”
A tarmil is a leather bag in which things are carried or stored (according to Rav Hai Gaon it was made to hold a measure of five kabin). A tarmil was used mainly by people who traveled over significant distances, like shepherds, who needed to carry food with them during their travels. The tarmil is also identified with converts who did not have a set ancestral home in which to live. Thus, there is a double meaning in identifying Rabbi Akiva – who was both a shepherd and a convert – with a tarmil.
There may be another reference here, as well. In the Gemara, the Sage Asi ben Yehuda compares Rabbi Akiva to a person who walks through his field gathering everything that he can find, and when he arrives at home, he empties the tarmil and organizes his belongings. Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya may have been suggesting that Rabbi Akiva’s method of study was to collect teachings from many different sources, and only later did he sit down and organize them. This is in contrast to Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya’s own background, in which he learned everything from his father and grandfather.