Plumber Joe shows up at the Goldbergs to fix their leaky tap. He finishes his work and tells Mrs. Goldberg, “Look, if you give me cash, I can give you a good deal.”
Can Mrs. Goldberg give him cash for his work? After all, she’s not telling him how to do his taxes. Maybe he just needs the money immediately to pay an outstanding bill?
After the farmer has gathered his crops, he must apportion tithes to the cohen, called terumah, and to the levi, called maaser. The levi must then tithe his gifts and give a portion to the cohen, called terumas maaser.
With regards to certain produce such as legumes, the obligation to tithe does not take effect until the farmer has threshed the crop and heaped it into piles, so that the cohen receives a finished product.
The Mishnah states: One who has bundles of fenugreek (a certain herb) must separate the seeds from the stalks before tithing them to the cohen.
The Gemara asks: If the fenugreek is still in bundles, it means that it has not yet been to the threshing floor. If so, there is no obligation yet to tithe!
The Gemara answers that we are not talking about the farmer’s obligation to give to the cohen. We are talking about terumas maaser – the levi’s obligation to tithe. The levi may not give bundles of fenugreek to the cohen, he must first separate the seeds from the stalks.
Asks the Gemara: Why can’t the levi just say to the cohen, “The same way they gave it to me, I’m giving it to you!”
Rava answers that the levi’s obligation to separate the stalks is a fine for accepting the bundled fenugreek from the farmer. Terumah (the gift to the cohen) must be apportioned before maaser (the gift to the levi) and the former must be threshed by the farmer before giving it. The levi should have realized that if the fenugreek was still bundled, the threshing had not yet taken place and the farmer had not yet given his tithes to the cohen. Therefore, the levi must do the work of separating the seeds from the stalks before giving them to the cohen.
Ethical people don’t just turn a blind eye to illicit activity. It wasn’t the levi that acted out of line, it was the farmer. But the levi is party to the indiscretion, because if the fenugreek was bundled, then obviously the cohen hadn’t received his terumah. And since he is partially guilty, our Sages imposed a fine on him.
Throughout our lives, we encounter ethical challenges. Whether it’s the plumber who asks for cash or the illegal immigrant who wants to be paid off the books, these are never easy questions. Sometimes we sense that there are mouths to feed at these workers’ homes or ‘back home’ in their countries of origin. Questions of how to deal with illegal immigrants challenge the minds of the greatest lawmakers.
Certainly, the determinant should never be what the cheapest or easiest solution is for you. If you are sincerely concerned for the welfare of the individual and his/her family, then sometimes there are tough ethical decisions you have to make.
Nevertheless, you may never simply ‘turn a blind eye,’ and tell yourself ‘it’s okay, because everybody does it.’ That doesn’t make it right. By aiding the wrongdoing, you become party to it. Some questions are not easily answered, but you must never dismiss the question as unimportant. The ethical issue should always be a real concern to you.