Still in the midst of discussing how we can establish the lineage of different families, our Gemara quotes a baraita where Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar teaches that receiving either teruma gedola or ma’aser rishon can be considered a reliable indicator that the recipient is a kohen. In response to the objection that ma’aser rishon is the levi‘s portion, the Gemara responds that Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar is following the opinion of Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya.
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. Our Gemara quotes a baraita in which we learn that this is only the opinion of Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya rules that ma’aser need not only be given to a levi, as it can also be given to a kohen, since the priestly families are all from the tribe of Levi (as we learned in Massekhet Yevamot, daf 86). Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya was a kohen who had a personal interest in this ruling. As our Gemara explains, following the penalty imposed on the levi’im by Ezra HaSofer, the rights of levi’im to ma’aser were severely curtailed, and it was ordinarily given only to kohanim and not to levi’im.
Tosafot on our daf search for a textual source for this penalty of Ezra. Although it is clear that Ezra was very disturbed by the fact that the levi’im did not choose to join him on his return to the Land of Israel (see Ezra 8:15-17), there is nevertheless no clear indication that he made a formal decision to penalize them by depriving them of ma’aser. One passage that they bring (Nehemiah 10:38) at best seems to indicate that the kohanim were given equal rights in the ma’aser, but not that it was taken from the levi’im. Still, the Meiri interprets that pasuk to mean that the kohanim were encouraged to receive the ma’aser directly from the farmer, although they were generous in sharing it with the levi’im.
The Beit Yosef interprets the Rambam (see Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Ma’aser 1:4) as limiting Ezra’s ruling to his own time only – after all, there is little reason to punish the levi’im who did choose to move to Israel – but that after the second Temple the rules of teruma and ma’aser reverted back to their original state.