Is Tithing Biblical?

Nasso - Numbers 4:21-7:89

Tithing is a favorite subject for many people and a popular topic that makes its way into the pulpits of many churches. Often, Malachi 3:10 is used to challenge parishioners to financially support the local church: “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.” 

Unfortunately, this passage is 1) often used as a form of abuse and control, and 2) not truly applicable outside of Israel when the Holy Temple is no longer standing. How does this connect with this week’s Torah portion? We will get to that shortly, but let’s begin by discussing the biblical definition of the tithe.

First, the Hebrew word for tithe is ma’aser, which literally means “tenth part.” So, we can see that the root concept is based on a tenth of something. Second, tithes are almost exclusively agricultural. They are the produce of the trees, the field, the vineyard, the cattle, and the flock (see Leviticus 27:30–33). Third, tithes are connected to the physical land of Israel. Deuteronomy 12:5–7 specifies that the tithes were to be instituted once the Israelites entered the Promised Land. It was a token by which they returned the blessing that God had bestowed upon them in the land “flowing with milk and honey.” Last, tithes don’t belong to a church, a synagogue, or a parachurch organization. They were created to support the Kohanim (Priests), Levi’im (Levites), the sojourners, the orphans, and the widows (see Numbers 18:21–32 and Deuteronomy 26:12), and some tithes were set aside for one’s own household to purchase food and drink for the festivities of holy days (see Deuteronomy 14:22–27).

Based on this information, tithes—in a literal, biblical sense— have no current application. However, this week’s Torah portion contains a brief passage that can provide insight and wisdom to help us understand the principle of tithing and how it can still be observed today. Numbers 5:9–10 says, “And every contribution, all the holy donations of the people of Israel, which they bring to the priest, shall be his. Each one shall keep his holy donations: whatever anyone gives to the priest shall be his.” 

The problem with understanding this verse is because of the pronouns. In the last portion of verse ten, it is unclear who owns the contributions. The literal reading of the beginning of the passages says, “A man’s holies shall be his.” And the end of the passage says, “whatever anyone gives to the priest shall be his.” Does the word “his” refer to the priest or the one who has given the contribution?

The traditional understanding resolves the problem like the JPS translation which says, “each priest shall keep what is given to him.” But Rashi brings down a midrashic interpretation from Sifrei that gives us a spiritual principle we can learn from the text. He says the beginning phrase, “A man’s holies shall be his,” could mean that the tithes one is obligated to give over are a reflection of how his field produces. In other words, if he refuses to give over his obligated tenth, then the entire crop will only produce a tenth of what it would have produced if he had obeyed the commandment of tithing.

His “holies shall be his” means that he only retains the portion designated for the tithe. The other ninety percent is forfeit. We must remember that it all belongs to Hashem anyway. We can keep ten percent or ninety percent based on our choices.

What does this have to do with us today when most of us do not live in the land of Israel and there is no Holy Temple and no Kohanim or Levi’im serving at their posts? It means we can take this principle of the ma’aser and find symbolic and practical applications in our own lives. First, by setting aside a tenth of what we earn or have been given, we are recognizing that everything we have comes from our Creator. 

Second, it means giving back a small portion of what we’ve been entrusted with in a way that blesses others. As Proverbs 19:17 says, “Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will repay him for his deed.”

No, it isn’t actually tithing when we give money to a ministry. But it is giving tzedakah (literally, righteousness), charity. And tzedakah is not limited to ministries. Even more importantly, we are to give to the poor, the homeless, orphans, and widows based on the tithe principle. Once we begin putting this principle into practice we might find we are richly rewarded for our stewardship. Are you struggling with giving away a portion of the resources you’ve been entrusted with? Just begin giving back a portion of what you’ve been given and see what Hashem can do.