The Evolution of the Tithe
by Sidney Dosh, Jr. 

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In the Hebrew language the word tithe is derived from the Hebrew word, "aser" meaning ten.  The "ma'aser," or tithe, thus means the tenth part.  Since this implies the application of this tenth part we find that "ma'aser" has come to mean the giving of a tenth part which is, as we shall see, the normative contribution that person is expected to offer under Biblical law.

The practice of "tithing" was not limited to God's people.  We find that this was a widespread practice among other religions and cultures outside Israel and the Semitic peoples.  An examination of Hebrew Scripture reveals an apparent conflict in the application of the tithe which can only be explained through the process of evolution of the tithe as it relates to custom, need, and tradition.

Early References In Scripture

Early references to tithing in Scripture are not clear, making it difficult to provide any definite historical picture of the practice.  The tithe is associated with an acknowledgement of a position of power or control exercised by a recognized deity, a combination of a recognized deity-ruler, or the recognition of a monarch.  These tithes are actually better described as tributes or sacrifices in which the minimum offering is one tenth, thus a tithe.

Although not a tithe in the purest sense we find as early as Genesis chapter 4 a sacrifice being offered to God by Abel and Cain.  It is inferred from this text that the practice is one that must have been observed by them and we can conclude that Adam must have made offerings also.  We can see from the text of the Scripture that one offering was accepted and one was rejected and even though the rejection was not attributed to a percentage as a tithe implies, nevertheless, there is a basis for acceptance established.

In Genesis chapter 14 we find the first use of the word "tithe" in connection with Abraham.  In this case the tithe was offered to the king-priest of Salem, Melchizedek, and was a portion of the spoils of war that Abraham accumulated in his battle with Kedorlaomer.  This offering, being from the spoils, is unlike later tithes that were given from the produce of the land, but the percentage offered is the same and must bear some significance in authenticating the norm which was later established.

From the account of Jacob at Bethel, in which Jacob promised to pay a tithe to God in exchange for safe passage to his father, Isaac, we can assume that the practice of tithing to God was at least known if not already in observance (Gen. 28:22).  A reference to this at Bethel by the prophet Amos in the 8th century BCE is an indication that tradition had established this as an authority for the tithe as a normative offering.

Tithes are not mentioned in the Book of the Covenant, the earliest written source of laws that has been preserved in the Hebrew Scriptures.  The code for tithes was later established in the book of Deuteronomy.  The most plausible explanation for this is that in the Book of the Covenant the offering of First Fruits is mentioned and the consensus is that the later code and the practice  of First Fruits were of a common origin.  These two were simply combined into one code which was designated "tithe."

Tithes in Deuteronomy

It is clear from the reading of the Hebrew Scriptures that the primary purpose of the tithe was to remind the people, who had been chosen by God to be His own people, that the things of life that sustained them were given by God for their use.  The tithe then became an offering of acknowledgement and devotion.  This tithe was rendered from the produce of the soil, was eaten by the offerer, and his household, at a central sanctuary.  The Levite, a member of the priestly tribe, was the invited guest and the occasion was considered a sacred feast.  The practice developed whereby those that lived a distance from the central sanctuary could sell the offering rather than transport it, using the money to purchase such food as they might desire at the feast (Gen 14:22-27).

In addition to the tithe as outlined above, Deuteronomy speaks of a tithe to be offered every third year.  It is unclear whether or not this is an additional tithe or simply a new designation for the tithe in those years alone.  It is clear that this tithe was specifically for charitable purposes and that it was distributed to the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.  Since the Levite had no inheritance in the land, it seems that this tithe was clearly taken in order to provide for the needs of this tribe.  The rationale behind the non-distribution of land to the Levite was to free him for service to the Lord.  Thus the offering to the Levite was an acknowledgement of God's ownership evidenced by the support of His chosen priests.

Although to many scholars the question of the tithe of the third year being an additional tithe receives a negative response, the question of the tithe in relationship to the offering of First Fruits is not so clear.  First Fruits is mentioned quite close to tithe (Gen. 26:1-15) which would tend to support the contention that the two are one and the same.  The basket of first fruits, which was taken to the central temple and presented along with a prayer of thanksgiving, was probably a symbolic act that accompanied the requirement to provide the tithe.  The further command to "rejoice in all the good which the Lord your God has given to you" could be taken to refer to the feast that was to follow the offering. 

The complication arises when in Gen. 18:4 we find a verse stating that the first fruits were to be given to the priests, a provision that was not connected to the outline of the tithe.  This is a problem that cannot be logically solved.  Suffice to say that over the years, as custom developed, the designation of the tithe and the practice of tithing simply evolved as the Scripture was interpreted and reinterpreted.

Tithe in the Priestly Code

Although there is debate as to which occurred first, the tithe as outlined in Deuteronomy or the offering to the tribe of Levi as outlined in Leviticus, it is clear that the responsibility for supporting the Levites fell to the other tribes.

It is also not clear why the addition of cattle was made into the priestly requirement.  It is quite clear that the tithe originally was an offering of agricultural produce, not of cattle.  In a later passage (Lev. 27:32-33) cattle are included and this is confirmed in II Chr. 31:5-12.  This discrepancy can only be attributed to the ongoing development in the cultic practice.  The practice continues into post-exilic times and is ultimately taken for granted as evidenced by the prophetic reference in Malachi, chapter 3.

The establishment of the Levitical inheritance actually is outlined in Numbers chapter 18 beginning with verse 21.  At this point we see the application of the tithe change.  Whereas previously the tithe of the first, second, fourth, and sixth years had been set aside and consumed by the person making the tithe, now the command is given to bring "all" the tithes to the Levites "in return for their service for which they serve, even the service of the tent of meeting" (Num. 18:21).  The Levites in turn were to give a tenth of this to the priests.  The command to give a tithe of the cattle does not specify whether this is to the priest or the Levite.

These various contradictions are explained by assigning them different codes.  The earliest law is considered to be the one outlined in Deuteronomy, and was shared by the priests and laymen, and then every third year by the poor.  The provision outlined in Numbers was a modification to provide for the support of the Levites which became necessary when the local places of worship were eliminated with the completion of the central Temple.

Rabbinical Commentary On The Tithe

In Talmudic interpretation the rabbis could not have tolerated the implication that there is a "contradiction" in the codes of tithing.  They viewed the two accounts as complimentary and consequently there can be no contradiction between them.  The explanation given resulted in a provision for three kinds of tithes:

  1. That given to the Levites as outlined in Numbers chapter 18 and designated the "first tithe" (ma'aser rishon);

  2. The tithe that was to be brought to the Temple in Jerusalem and consumed there by the owner and his family was the "second tithe" (ma'aser sheni), this tithe being taken from what was left after the first tithe had been appropriated (i.e., 1/10 of the remaining 9/10's);

  3. The portion of the tithe to be given to the poor (ma'aser ani).  Thus two tithes were taken every year except the seventh (Sabbatical) year: Nos. 1 and 2 in the first, second, fourth, and fifth years; Nos. 1 and [number presently missing] the third and sixth year.

Furthermore the rabbis concluded that the tithe was to be taken indiscriminately, whether produce or cattle or anything else subject to tithing.  The basis for including monetary income, which later became the norm especially for those dwelling in the cities, was the word "all" in the verse in Deuteronomy 14:22 ("be sure to set aside tenth of ALL that your fields produce each year").

By the third century BCE this interpretation was placing a heavy burden on the population.  The ordinary peasant had to pay an annual tax of ten percent and then spend an additional ten percent during the few days of feast at the Temple.  Thus for many it became common practice to simply avoid the payment altogether.  However, the most pious maintained the letter of the law as evidenced by an excerpt from the book of Tobit.  He states:

I used to go to Jerusalem with the first fruits and the firstlings and the tenth of the cattle and the first shearing of the sheep and give them to the priests, the sons of Aaron, for the altar; and the tenth of the corn and the wine and the oil and the pomegranates and the rest of the fruits to the sons of Levi, who ministered in Jerusalem; and the second tenth I tithed annually for the six years and went and spent it each year at Jerusalem; and gave it unto the orphans and the widows and the proselytes who attached themselves to the children of Israel, I brought it and gave it unto them in the third year (Tobit 1:7ff).

For those that did not set aside the tithe various means were devised to ensure that the tithe would be paid.  A later practice was to require that the purchaser of the grain set aside the tithe on the grain if he was not certain that the seller had done so. This became an ordinance known as demai.  Practically this law nullified the institution of the tithe (ma'aser) so far as purchasers were concerned.  In  point of fact only the pious observed the ordinance, but it relieved the government from the responsibility of strict enforcement and, at the same time, enabled the purchaser to protect his own conscience. There were many abuses of the law, both in the failure to observe payment as well as the failure of the priests to make proper distribution.  Nevertheless, these were the parameters of the Judaic tradition prior to the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.

Tithing In Later Judaism

With the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, the need for the services of the priests no longer existed.  Slowly they were absorbed into the social structure and the tithe evolved from a method of support for the priestly sacrificial system to a method of support for those who were devoted to the study or Torah and the needy.

At the same time the application of the tithe to produce was only applicable to Eretz Yisrael.  The primary basis for the tithe became firmly established as a monetary offering known as "ma'aser kesafim."  At the same time the shift was made from the sacrificial and the application of the tithe was considered an act of righteousness or "tzedakah."

There was no attempt to redefine the amount to be given.  One-tenth remained the norm and the Sages continued to attached considerable importance to the observance of this requirement.  The rationale that was provided for the gift was the same as had been observed throughout history, a recognition of God's provision.  The text used to underline the basis for this recognition was: "Who has given Me anything beforehand, that I should repay him?  Whatsoever  is under the whole of heaven is Mine" (Job 41:3).  Those who did not live up to the requirement were considered to have an "evil eye," a reference to Pro. 28:22.

Furthermore, those that honor the requirement are promised a reward for their obedience, a reward that was material as well as  spiritual (see Mal. 3:10). Rabbinic literature contains numerous references to one who is generous in his giving, clearly stating that to do so will not diminish the wealth of the donor, but, on the contrary, will preserve it and even increase it.

Today the obligation is to tithe to charity one-tenth for each Jewish man and woman.  There are lists which enumerate the way in which the calculation of the tithe is to be made; those who are exempt from the tithe; how to set aside the tithe; improper uses of the tithe; legitimate uses of the tithe; and how to dispose of the tithe. These lists are too lengthy to include here.  This information may be found in any of several books listed in the Bibliography.

It is interesting to note that Jewish law sets both a minimum (one tenth) and a maximum (twice one-tenth) for donations to charity.  This permits an individual an opportunity to exercise his or her own conscience in determining the level of his or her giving while at the same time preventing the law from becoming merely a code of fixed taxation.

The upper limit has the further function of prohibiting one from becoming overly generous, either out of a sense of guilt or a sense of duty, and thus becoming a subject of charity himself.  This underscores the Jewish disagreement with early non-Jewish religions in which the "ideal poverty" was held up as the goal of the truly righteous.  This concept of poverty runs contrary to the Torah and is considered unrealistic as a universal standard.

A Selected Bibliography

(1) Buttrick, George Arthur, ed.  The Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible. 4. New York: Abingdon Press, 1962.

(2) Charles, R. H., ed. Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament. 2 vols. Oxford, 1913.

(3) Cheyne, Thomas Kelly, D.D., ed. Encyclopaedia Biblica.  IV.  New York: MacMillan Company, 1903.

(4) Domb, Cyril. Maaser Kesafim, New York: Feldheim Publishers, 1980.

(5) Driver, R. S. R., D.D. "Deuteronomy."  The International Critical Commentary, New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1916. 166-173    

(6) Finkelstein, Louis, Ph.D. "Some Examples of Maccabean Halaka." Journal of Biblical Literature. 49       (1930) 20-42.

(7) Landman, Issac, ed. The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia. 10. New York: KTAV Publishing House,       1969. 254.

(8) Levitan, R. Reuben. The Jewish Monetary Code of Ten Per Cent. Jerusalem: Haktav Institute, 1985.

(9) Oppenheimer, Joseph. Ma'aser. New York: Shengold Publishers, 1971.

(10) Singer, Isidore, Ph.D., ed. The Jewish Encyclopedia.      XII.  New York: Funk and Wagnalls Company, 1905.

(11) The Bible.

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