Maaser means “a tenth.” It’s based on the Hebrew word eser, or ten. As a rule, it refers to donating ten percent of whatever to whomever. While ma’aser may seem like a lot of giving, it’s actually all about receiving. Just like sacrifices, which primarily benefit those who bring them, giving ma’aser whips you into spiritual shape by forcing you to extend yourself.
The ancient taxes
Taxes go back thousands of years. Although we are most familiar with government taxes—in ancient times the king’s tax—another ancient tax was the Temple tax. In Hebrew the tax is called מעשר, in Akkadian ešru/eširtû, and in Ugaritic maʿšārtu. All of these terms come from some form of the root ע-ש-ר, meaning ten, since the requirement was to tithe—the old English word for “tenth”—one’s produce/earnings to support the temple.
Tithes to the Temple or to the Levites?
The requirement for a landowner to tithe produce appears three times in the Torah (Numbers 18, Leviticus 27, and Deuteronomy 14, 26). Nevertheless, the meaning and purpose of the tithes differs in each context. Two texts (Numbers and Leviticus) assume that the tithe is a kind of temple tax, designed to support the temple personnel. The third (Deuteronomy) has an entirely different concept of tithing and its purpose. We will begin with Numbers 18.
The Levitical Tithe in Numbers (Priestly Text)
Numbers 18 legislates a requirement for landowners to tithe their produce every year and give this to the Levites.
יח:כא וְלִבְנֵ֣י לֵוִ֔י הִנֵּ֥ה נָתַ֛תִּי כָּל מַֽעֲשֵׂ֥ר בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לְנַחֲלָ֑ה חֵ֤לֶף עֲבֹֽדָתָם֩ אֲשֶׁר הֵ֣ם עֹֽבְדִ֔ים אֶת עֲבֹדַ֖ת אֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵֽד….יח:כד כִּ֞י אֶת מַעְשַׂ֣ר בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל אֲשֶׁ֨ר יָרִ֤ימוּ לַֽי-הֹוָה֙ תְּרוּמָ֔ה נָתַ֥תִּי לַלְוִיִּ֖ם לְנַחֲלָ֑ה עַל כֵּן֙ אָמַ֣רְתִּי לָהֶ֔ם בְּתוֹךְ֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל לֹ֥א יִנְחֲל֖וּ נַחֲלָֽה: פ
|18:21 And to the Levites I hereby give all the tithes in Israel as their share in return for the services that they perform, the services of the Tent of Meeting…. 18:24 for it is the tithes set aside by the Israelites as a gift to YHWH that I give to the Levites as their share. Therefore, I have said concerning them: They shall have no territorial share among the Israelites.|
The law is relatively straightforward: the Israelites must pay one tenth of all their produce to the Levites, who are meant to collect the tithe directly from the farmer (see v. 26 that describes the Levites “taking” the tithe from them). This tithe is in addition to the required payments to the priests (detailed earlier in chapter 18), which are more complex (first fruits, certain cuts of sacrificial meat, etc.) but likely less substantial (no set amount is given). This implies that the population of Levites was larger than the priests.
The Priestly Tithe in Leviticus (Holiness Text)
The final chapter of Leviticus deals with various laws of gifts to the Temple. Regarding tithes the verses say:
כז:ל וְכָל מַעְשַׂ֨ר הָאָ֜רֶץ מִזֶּ֤רַע הָאָ֙רֶץ֙ מִפְּרִ֣י הָעֵ֔ץ לַי-הֹוָ֖ה ה֑וּא קֹ֖דֶשׁ לַֽי-הֹוָֽה: כז:לא וְאִם גָּאֹ֥ל יִגְאַ֛ל אִ֖ישׁ מִמַּֽעַשְׂר֑וֹ חֲמִשִׁית֖וֹ יֹסֵ֥ף עָלָֽיו: כז:לבוְכָל מַעְשַׂ֤ר בָּקָר֙ וָצֹ֔אן כֹּ֥ל אֲשֶׁר יַעֲבֹ֖ר תַּ֣חַת הַשָּׁ֑בֶט הָֽעֲשִׂירִ֕י יִֽהְיֶה קֹּ֖דֶשׁ לַֽי-הֹוָֽה:
|27:30 All tithes from the land, whether seed from the ground or fruit from the tree, are YHWH’s; they are holy to YHWH. 27:31 If anyone wishes to redeem any of his tithes, he must add one-fifth to them. 27:32 All tithes of the herd or flock—of all that passes under the shepherd’s staff, every tenth one—shall be holy to YHWH. 27:33|
A number of new elements appear here:
- The tithe is referred to as holy (קדש). In Numbers, the tithe is not holy; only the contribution to the priest (terumah) is holy (Num 18:8).
- The text describes a tithe on animals; no such tithe is mentioned in Numbers.
- The text does not say anything about the tithe going to Levites. It says that the tithe goes to GOD, i.e., the temple. Since everything else in this chapter that goes to GOD is placed under the care of the priesthood—Levites are never mentioned in this chapter while priests come up eleven times—this implies that the tithe is to go to the priesthood.
- The possibility of redeeming the tithe is discussed, along with the requirement to pay a fifth extra as part of the redemption process. (This last rule is not a contradiction but an entirely new element.)
Noting the differing conceptions of the temple tithe in Leviticus 27 and Numbers 18, critical scholars suggest that each text represents a different view of the tithe. Numbers 18 comes from the Priestly text (P); this text envisions a robust hierarchical system with priests as the most important functionaries but with large numbers of Levites serving in secondary capacities. To maintain this system, it has a two-pronged tax, the tithe goes directly to the Levites, and other contributions (including a tithe from the Levites themselves) go to the priests. Ostensibly, the Levites functioned as their own tax collectors in this system, albeit with the implicit backing of the Temple.
Leviticus 27, however, comes from an alternative (later) Priestly school, referred to in academic circles as the Holiness school (H). This text envisions a Temple tithe, writ large, in which the tithe is paid directly to the Temple and is controlled by the Priests. It is unclear if this system envisions the priests paying Levites and other workers from this tax. Nevertheless, from some of descriptions of tithing found in early Second Temple period texts (such as Nehemiah 12:44, 13:4-5 and 2 Chronicles 31:11-12), we learn that the Temple has a treasury that stores all the contributions, and which seems to be under the control of the priests. This may very well be what H is envisioning.
Numbers (P) and Leviticus (H): Tithes for the Temple and its Service
In comparing the tithes as described in Numbers 18 (P) and Leviticus 27 (H), we see two different versions of temple tithes. Each reflects a different period of time or at least a different idealized image of temple funding. Nevertheless, both Priestly schools are in agreement that the tithe is meant to sustain the Temple and the Temple service.
Tithing for Jerusalem and Tithing for the Poor
The Deuteronomic law collection (D) also has a tithing requirement, but it is entirely different than the other two versions (P and H) in purpose and character.
Setting aside a tithe for yourself
יד:כב עַשֵּׂ֣ר תְּעַשֵּׂ֔ר אֵ֖ת כָּל תְּבוּאַ֣ת זַרְעֶ֑ךָ הַיֹּצֵ֥א הַשָּׂדֶ֖ה שָׁנָ֥ה שָׁנָֽה:יד:כג וְאָכַלְתָּ֞ לִפְנֵ֣י׀ יְ-הֹוָ֣ה אֱ-לֹהֶ֗יךָ בַּמָּק֣וֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר֘ לְשַׁכֵּ֣ן שְׁמ֣וֹ שָׁם֒ מַעְשַׂ֤ר דְּגָֽנְךָ֙ תִּֽירֹשְׁךָ֣ וְיִצְהָרֶ֔ךָ וּבְכֹרֹ֥ת בְּקָרְךָ֖ וְצֹאנֶ֑ךָ לְמַ֣עַן תִּלְמַ֗ד לְיִרְאָ֛ה אֶת־יְ-הֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ כָּל הַיָּמִֽים:
|14: 22 You shall set aside every year a tenth part of all the yield of your sowing that is brought from the field. 14:23You shall consume the tithes of your new grain and wine and oil, and the firstlings of your herds and flocks, in the presence of YHWH your GOD, in the place where He will choose to establish His name, so that you may learn to revere YHWH your GOD forever.|
Taking Care of Landless Levites
יד:כז וְהַלֵּוִ֥י אֲשֶׁר־בִּשְׁעָרֶ֖יךָ לֹ֣א תַֽעַזְבֶ֑נּוּ כִּ֣י אֵ֥ין ל֛וֹ חֵ֥לֶק וְנַחֲלָ֖ה עִמָּֽךְ: ס
|14:27 But do not neglect the Levite in your community, for he has no hereditary portion as you have.|
The Tithe for the Poor
יד:כח מִקְצֵ֣ה׀ שָׁלֹ֣שׁ שָׁנִ֗ים תּוֹצִיא֙ אֶת כָּל מַעְשַׂר֙ תְּבוּאָ֣תְךָ֔ בַּשָּׁנָ֖ה הַהִ֑וא וְהִנַּחְתָּ֖ בִּשְׁעָרֶֽיךָ: יד:כט וּבָ֣א הַלֵּוִ֡י כִּ֣י אֵֽין לוֹ֩ חֵ֨לֶק וְנַחֲלָ֜ה עִמָּ֗ךְ וְ֠הַגֵּר וְהַיָּת֤וֹם וְהָֽאַלְמָנָה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בִּשְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ וְאָכְל֖וּ וְשָׂבֵ֑עוּ לְמַ֤עַן יְבָרֶכְךָ֙ יְ-הֹוָ֣ה אֱ-לֹהֶ֔יךָ בְּכָל־מַעֲשֵׂ֥ה יָדְךָ֖ אֲשֶׁ֥ר תַּעֲשֶֽׂה: ס
|14:28 Every third year you shall bring out the full tithe of your yield of that year, but leave it within your settlements. 14:29 Then the Levite, who has no hereditary portion as you have, and the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your settlements shall come and eat their fill, so that YHWH your GOD may bless you in all the enterprises you undertake.|
These tithing instructions differ from the previous treatments in a variety of ways:
- Timing – the tithe works as part of the seven-year shemitah cycle, which means there is no tithe on the seventh year.
- There are two kinds of tithes, which apply in different years.
- Neither of the tithes is paid to Temple staff of any kind.
The “main” tithe, known by the rabbinic term מעשר שני (the second tithe), is consumed by the owner in “the place GOD chooses,” (i.e., where the Temple stands, ostensibly Jerusalem). Although it is not a “Levitical tithe,” the Torah does instruct the landowner to take care of the Levite because he is poor – but no specifics are included. The tithe appears to apply only during the first, second, fourth and fifth years of a shemitah cycle, since years three and six are for the poor person’s tithe.
The poor person’s tithe applies during the third and sixth years. It is consumed at “your gates,” namely in your city or village, not in the Temple. The category “poor” includes the Levite, the stranger, widows and orphans.
Although the poor tithe one applies during two out of the sixth tithing years, the confession in Deuteronomy 26, which is to be recited upon delivering the poor tithe, makes this the cornerstone of the tithing system:
כו:יב כִּ֣י תְכַלֶּ֞ה לַ֠עְשֵׂר אֶת־כָּל־מַעְשַׂ֧ר תְּבוּאָתְךָ֛ בַּשָּׁנָ֥ה הַשְּׁלִישִׁ֖ת שְׁנַ֣ת הַֽמַּעֲשֵׂ֑ר וְנָתַתָּ֣ה לַלֵּוִ֗י לַגֵּר֙ לַיָּת֣וֹם וְלָֽאַלְמָנָ֔ה וְאָכְל֥וּ בִשְׁעָרֶ֖יךָ וְשָׂבֵֽעוּ: כו:יג וְאָמַרְתָּ֡ לִפְנֵי֩ יְ-הֹוָ֨ה אֱ-לֹהֶ֜יךָ…
|26:12 When you have set aside in full the tenth part of your yield—in the third year, the year of the tithe—and have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, that they may eat their fill in your settlements, 26:13 you shall declare before YHWH your GOD…|
The tithe is referred to as holy (קדש) even though it is not given to the priests, but to the regular poor folk in one’s community. Here the Levites are mentioned not as Temple personnel, but as poor people in need of charity.
Deuteronomy’s Social and Religious Program
Since temple tithes were a cornerstone of Ancient Near Eastern economy, it likely that D reflects a reworking of the rules of the tithes in an effort to further its core values.
Charity – The social aspect of D’s program run through the book of Deuteronomy. The confession in Deut 26 implies a belief that in order to keep GOD’s favor, the Israelites need to take care of their most vulnerable classes, including widows, orphans, strangers, and Levites. Thus, D legislates the poor person’s tithe every third and sixth year, and binds the person with a public oath stating that he has fulfilled this properly.
Shemitah – The seven-year cycle is also a cornerstone of D’s social and religious program. Since the land must lie fallow every seventh year, it would be impossible to require the landowner to tithe his produce in a shemittah year.
Central Temple and Pilgrimage Holidays – One of Deuteronomy’s core objectives is the centralization of worship in Jerusalem. This includes the insistence that all of Israel make a pilgrimage to the Jerusalem Temple three times a year. The main tithe seems to be designed to encourage the landowner to visit and spend ten percent of his assets in the holy city.
This change came at great expense, however, since it entirely cancelled the large temple tithe, leaving only the much smaller terumah-like payment to the priest (Deut 18:4). Since D does not distinguish between Priests and Levites, perhaps D’s thinking is that Levites who serve as priests will be covered by the terumah payments and those who do not will be covered by the requirement to take care of the poor (which explicitly includes the Levites.)
The Rabbinic Invention of מעשר שני (the Second Tithe)
For the rabbis, the problems with the differing tithing instructions was so acute that the only way to solve it was by positing that the Torah actually requires two entirely different tithes. The first tithe (מעשר ראשון) is to be paid to the Levite; the second tithe (מעשר שני) is to be consumed in Jerusalem.
The implications of the rabbis solution is costly—it doubles a person’s tithing obligations to twenty percent (more like 22% when factoring in terumah), and that doesn’t even include any taxes the king may have demanded. It is no wonder that the Talmud complains incessantly that nobody tithes.
Tithing before the Centralization of Worship in the Jerusalem Temple
D is the earliest legal text we have that discusses tithes, but this does not mean that no tithing occurred before the seventh century BCE. Before D and its program to create centralized worship in the Jerusalem temple, Israel and Judah had altars and mini-temples all over the land. With no centralized system, it likely that each area had its own way of collecting funds to support the local temples and the larger Temples, like that of Beit-El or Jerusalem, had some sort of tithing system (although it is unclear how they would have determined who was required to pay).
The existence of an early tradition about paying a tithe to these temples is supported by the etiological stories of Patriarchs paying tithes, both part of the non-P (JE) texts:
Abraham pays a tithe to the high priest of YHWH in (Jeru)salem (Gen 14):
יד:יח וּמַלְכִּי צֶ֙דֶק֙ מֶ֣לֶךְ שָׁלֵ֔ם הוֹצִ֖יא לֶ֣חֶם וָיָ֑יִן וְה֥וּא כֹהֵ֖ן לְאֵ֖ל עֶלְיֽוֹן: יד:יט וַֽיְבָרְכֵ֖הוּ וַיֹּאמַ֑ר בָּר֤וּךְ אַבְרָם֙ לְאֵ֣ל עֶלְי֔וֹן קֹנֵ֖ה שָׁמַ֥יִם וָאָֽרֶץ: יד:כ וּבָרוּךְ֙ אֵ֣ל עֶלְי֔וֹן אֲשֶׁר מִגֵּ֥ן צָרֶ֖יךָ בְּיָדֶ֑ךָ וַיִּתֶּן ל֥וֹ מַעֲשֵׂ֖ר מִכֹּֽל:
|14:18 And King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was a priest of GOD Most High. 14:19 He blessed him, saying, “Blessed be Abram of GOD Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. 14:20 And blessed be GOD Most High, Who has delivered your foes into your hand.”And [Abram] gave him a tenth of everything.|
Jacob offers to pay a tithe to the GOD of Beit-El (Gen 28)
כח:כ וַיִּדַּ֥ר יַעֲקֹ֖ב נֶ֣דֶר לֵאמֹ֑ר אִם יִהְיֶ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֜ים עִמָּדִ֗י וּשְׁמָרַ֙נִי֙ בַּדֶּ֤רֶךְ הַזֶּה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אָנֹכִ֣י הוֹלֵ֔ךְ וְנָֽתַן לִ֥י לֶ֛חֶם לֶאֱכֹ֖ל וּבֶ֥גֶד לִלְבֹּֽשׁ: כח:כא וְשַׁבְתִּ֥י בְשָׁל֖וֹם אֶל בֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑י וְהָיָ֧ה יְ-הֹוָ֛ה לִ֖י לֵאלֹהִֽים:כח:כב וְהָאֶ֣בֶן הַזֹּ֗את אֲשֶׁר שַׂ֙מְתִּי֙ מַצֵּבָ֔ה יִהְיֶ֖ה בֵּ֣ית אֱלֹהִ֑ים וְכֹל֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר תִּתֶּן לִ֔י עַשֵּׂ֖ר אֲעַשְּׂרֶ֥נּוּ לָֽךְ:
|28:20 Jacob then made a vow, saying, “If GOD remains with me, if He protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, 28:21 and if I return safe to my father’s house—YHWH shall be my GOD. 28:22 And this stone, which I have set up as a pillar, shall be GOD’s abode; and of all that You give me, I will set aside a tithe for You.”|
These stories would have preserved old local traditions about the antiquity of the temples. We can imagine the local priests saying, “It is worthwhile to support our temple and sacrifice here; it was founded by Jacob and he was the first to pay a tithe to our ancient priesthood!” Why the pre-P material contains no tithing law is a mystery; perhaps, in this early period, there was no one tithing system but competing ones.
The first place I looked to refresh my memory was in Jacob Milgrom’s Anchor Bible commentary. Reading his addenda on the subject brought me back to 2001 when I was a master’s student at Hebrew University, taking a course on law codes with Prof. Moshe Weinfeld who was quite old at the time, and his health was already failing. One day, he brought in a colleague of his, around the same age, to guest teach; that colleague was Jacob Milgrom. Milgrom asked what he should teach (this was clearly going to be an off-the-cuff lecture), and Weinfeld said it should be about contradictions in the law codes.
Milgrom asked: “How about the Hebrew slave law?” Weinfeld responded: “We already did that one.” Milgrom said: “All right, then let’s do ma’aser.” Although I don’t remember all the specifics, I vividly recall that I had never noticed that “the second tithe” is really just the tithe in Deuteronomy. I also remember what it was like to watch someone give a lecture on the laws in the Torah, who clearly had all the information and all the pesukim in his head. I hope, 15 years later, I have done the subject some justice.