The Torah rarely states the reason for the various commandments, but one is given for the mitzvah of “Ma’aser Sheini” – eatng our own produce in Jerusalem.
This week’s Torah portion is “Re’eh” (Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17), and in it we read about the mitzvah (commandment) of “Ma’aser Sheini.”
Ma’aser Sheini is a very unique mitzvah in the category of “charitable” commandments because it requires farmers to donate a portion of their produce not to the poor, but rather to the farmers themselves to eat a portion of their produce….in Jerusalem! Yes, farmers from all over the Land of Israel were required to pack a tenth of all their produce and make a journey to Jerusalem in order to eat it there. Alternatively, the farmers were able to substitute the produce for money that would be spent on food in Jerusalem. Either way, if you were a farmer, you had to prepare for a trip to Jerusalem.
The Torah rarely states the reason for the various commandments. However, one is given for the mitzvah of “Ma’aser Sheini”, which is, “…so that the people will learn to fear God.”
How does the mitzvah of “Ma’aser Sheini” arouse fear of God? One would think that the mitzvah of observing the Shabbat, fasting on Yom Kippur or eating matzah on Passover would be better ways to arouse a fear of God. Why would anyone become fearful of God by eating carrots in Jerusalem?
It is explained that this mitzvah indeed arouses fear of God because it forces people to visit Jerusalem. When a person traveled from far in order to fulfill the mitzvah of Ma’aser Sheini, eating their own produce in Jerusalem (or spending the equivalent amount of money on food that would be eaten in Jerusalem), he would stay awhile. He would probably spend time in the Holy Temple, visit other holy sites and catch up with old friends.
Jerusalem, of course, is a very special place. Its profound holiness extends for miles throughout the city. Just as when a person spends time in a perfume shop and leaves with a wonderful scent, one who spends time in Jerusalem leaves a bit holier, more spiritual, more God-sensitive.
So indeed, the mitzvah of Ma’aser Sheini did arouse greater levels of fear of God, and by extension, greater levels of spiritual sensitivity. Although we do not perform this mitzvah nowadays, it’s message is timeless: We must be careful to keep ourselves in healthy, positive and spiritual surroundings because we are affected by what goes on around us.