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Tithes
The tithe is the only commandment in the Tanach about which YHWH invites us to challenge Him:
“(10) Bring all the tithe to the storehouse and let it be food in My house, and test Me with this, says YHWH of Hosts, if I do not open for you the windows of heaven, and empty out for you a blessing until there is not enough [room to store it].”

The tithe-challenge, is that if we give the tithe we will be rewarded with rain, blessing, and abundance. But what is the tithe and who do we give it to?

“Tithe” comes from an old English word meaning “tenth”. [Tithe comes from the Old English “teogotha” meaning “tenth”, see under “tithe” in Random House Dictionary of the English Language: Unabridged Edition, New York 1983, p.1488]
More importantly though it translates the Hebrew word ma‘aser מַעֲשֵׂר which also means “tenth” or “ten percent” (from the root ‘sr עשׂר “ten”). [A different Hebrew word asirit עֲשִׂירִית is used to refer to “a tenth measure”, while ma‘aser מַעֲשֵׂר almost always appears in the technical sense of tithe. So a tenth measure of flour would be asirit עֲשִׂירִית but a tenth of one’s crops would be ma‘aser מַעֲשֵׂר .The only exceptions are Ezek 45:11, 14 where ma‘aser מַעֲשֵׂר means a tenth measure of chomer or bath (various ancient measurements). On the other hand the tithe is never referred to as simply asirit .עֲשִׂירִית]

Scripture also uses the verb ‘iser עִשֵּׂר (pi‘el) meaning to separate out a tithe (e.g. Gen 28:22). If the tithe is a tenth, then a tenth of what? Is the tithe just as ancient income tax? Or is it something more specific? The first commandment concerning the tithe appears in Lev 27, where we read:
“(30) Every tithe of the earth, from the seed of the earth and from the fruit of the tree belongs to YHWH, it is holy (kodesh קֹדֶשׁ ) to YHWH. (31) If a man shall nevertheless redeem his tithe, he shall add a fifth in addition to it. (32) And ever tithe of cattle and of the flock, all that passes under the staff, the tenth shall be holy to YHWH. (33) He shall not discern between good and bad [animals] nor shall he replace it; if he nevertheless replace it, it and its replacement shall be holy (kodesh קֹדֶשׁ ), it shall not be redeemed.”

We see a sharp distinction between two types of tithes. The first type of tithe is a “produce-tithe” consisting of agricultural produce that grows from the ground or from trees. One tenth of each annual crop “belongs to YHWH, it is holy to YHWH”. The farmer has the option of “redeeming” his produce-tithe by paying its value in silver along with an extra 1/5. So for
example, if a farmer has a field of wheat which produced 100 bushels of grain, he must separate out 10 bushels as a tithe. If the farmer desires, he may redeem the 10 bushels by paying in silver the value of 12 bushels (the tithe plus 1/5). The same would be true of any crop whether grown in the field or on the trees.

The second type of tithe is an animal-tithe. The animal-tithe comes from the cattle and flocks (sheep, goats). Every year the newborn animals are made to pass under a staff, one at a time, and every tenth animal is sanctified as a tithe. Unlike the produce-tithe, the animal-tithe may not be redeemed nor may the herdsman choose which of the newborn animals is to be given as a tithe. If the owner attempts to replace the tithe-animal, both the original animal and its replacement are sanctified as part of the tithe. Even if the worst animals in the flock end up as the tithe, it may not be replaced or redeemed since it is holy, belonging to YHWH.

Kodesh קֹדֶשׁ to YHWH

What does it mean that the produce-tithe and the animal-tithe are “holy to YHWH” (Lev 27:33)? The Hebrew word translated as “holy” is kodesh קֹדֶשׁ . kodesh קֹדֶשׁ is often translated as “apartness” or “set apart” [Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, pp.1072-1073; BDB p.871.] since something “holy” is set apart from that which is not holy. However, this is only part of the story because not everything that is “set apart” falls under the Torah-category of kodesh קֹדֶשׁ . Lev 27 itself refers to several different types of set apart things, not all of which are identical with kodesh קֹדֶשׁ . For example, v.28 talks about cherem חֵרֶם which is the highest level of “set apartness”. Cherem חֵרֶם literally means “utter destruction” and anything declared to be cherem חֵרֶם must be killed or utterly destroyed so that it never be used by human beings. [”Real life” examples of cherem חֵרֶם can be found in Jos 6:17-18; 7:1ff.] So although cherem is also set apart (by destroying it), it is not the same thing as kodesh .קֹדֶשׁ

To understand what it means for something to be kodesh קֹדֶשׁ to YHWH we must consider what the Torah itself says about such things. The rules regarding the kodashim קֳדָשִׁים “holy-things” (plural of kodesh קֹדֶשׁ ) appear in Lev 22, where we read:

“(2) Speak to the Aaron and his sons, that they separate themselves from the holy-things (kodshei [kodshei קָדְשֵׁי is the construct form of the plural kodashim קֳּדָשִׁים . The construct form adds the meaning “of”, i.e. “the holy-things of”.](קָדְשֵׁי of the children of Israel which they sanctify to Me, that they not defile My holy name, I am YHWH.

(3) Say to them throughout their generations, any man out of all your descendants who approaches the holy-things (kodashim קֳדָשִׁים ) which the children of Israel sanctify to YHWH, his impurity being upon him, that soul shall be cut off from before me, I am YHWH” (Lev 22:2-3)

We see that the kohanim, the Aaronic priests, are warned not to defile the holy-things by approaching them while in a state of impurity. The passage continues by explaining precisely what is meant by impurity:
“(4) Any man from the seed of Aaron who has leprosy or an issue, shall not eat of the holy-things (kodashim קֳדָשִׁים ) until he become pure; and anyone who touches any impurity of the dead or a man from whom semen comes out, (5) or a man that touches any swarming thing which makes him impure, or a man who becomes impure by any source of impurity, (6) such as if a person touched him and he became impure until evening, he shall not eat of the holy-things (kodashim קֳדָשִׁים ) until he wash his flesh in water (7) and when the sun sets he becomes pure, afterwards he may eat of the holy-things (kodashim
קֳדָשִׁים ), for it is his bread… (9) They shall keep my instruction and not bear sin because of it and die by it when they defile it, I am YHWH who sanctifies them… (15) They shall not defile the holy-things of the children of Israel which they raise-up (yarimu יָרִימוּ ) to YHWH.” (Lev 22:4-7, 9, 15)

We see that the priests are warned not to touch or eat of the holy-things in a state of ritual-impurity because this will result in defilement of the holything and death.

Tithe as a Raise-Offering

The holy-things in Lev 22 are described as “the holy-things of the children of Israel which they raise-up (yarimu יָרִימוּ ) to YHWH”. The word yarimu יָרִימוּ “they will raise up” [Yarimu יָרִימוּ is hif‘il of רום meaning “high, tall”. The hif’il add the causative meaning of “to make high, raise-up”.] is usually translated as “they will offer” (e.g. KJV ASV RSV NRSV] or “they will present” [NIV]. This loose translation smoothes over the precise meaning of the Hebrew words, condemning to oblivion the mode of sanctification specified in the verse. It seems that the actual sanctification of a holy-thing takes place when the Israelite declares it to be holy and accompanies this by physically raising it up in the air. A holy-thing consecrated in this fashion is then called a terumah תְרוּמָה which literally means “raise-offerings” (often translated “heave-offerings”).

We have seen that the tithe is a holy-thing and that the holy-things must be consumed in a state of ritual-purity. Since the tithe is a holy-thing it must also be eaten in a state of ritual-purity.

The Levitical Tithes

It is still unclear who receives the tithes. Nu 18 explains that we are to give the tithe to the Levites in exchange for their work in the Tabernacle/ Temple:
“(21) And to the children of Levi, behold, I have given every tithe in Israel as an inherited-portion (nachalah נַחֲלָה ), in exchange for their service which they serve in the service of the Tent of Meeting. (22) The children of Israel shall no longer approach the tent of meeting to bear sin and die. (23) The Levite shall serve in the service of the Tent of Meeting and they [the Levites] shall bear their [the Israelites] sin, it is an eternal statute throughout your generations, and they shall not inherit an inherited-portion amongst the children of Israel. (24) For the tithe which the children of Israel raise-up (yarimu יָרִימוּ ) as a raise-offering (terumah תְרוּמָה ) to YHWH, I have given to the Levites as an inherited-portion (nachalah נַחֲלָה ), therefore I said to them, they shall not inherit an inherited-portion (nachalah נַחֲלָה ) in the midst of the children of Israel.” (Nu 18:21-24)

We see that every tithe, that is, the produce-tithes of all the various crops and the animal-tithes of the various species of animals are to be given to the Levites in exchange for their work in the Tent of Meeting. In exchange for these tithes the Levites must guard the Tabernacle from being defiled by the Israelites. Should the Levites fail in their mission they will bear the sin of
every Israelite that defiles the Tabernacle and die in place of the offending Israelite. Rather than receive a nachalah נַחֲלָה “inherited portion”, i.e. a plot of land passed down through inheritance, the Levites will receive the tithes as their nachalah נַחֲלָה and dedicate themselves to the Temple service. The tithe is specifically characterized as a terumah תְרוּמָה “raise-offering” that
the children of Israel yarimu יָרִימוּ “raise-up”.

The Priestly Tithe

Nu 18 continues by telling us that the Levites themselves must give a tithe of their tithes to the Aaronic priests:
“(25) And YHWH said to Moses saying, (26) To the Levites speak and say to them, when you take from the children of Israel the tithe which I give to you from them as an inherited-portion (nachalah נַחֲלָה ), you shall raise-up from it a raise-offering to YHWH, a tithe of the tithe. (27) And your raise-offering shall be reckoned as the grain from the threshing floor and the overflow from the winepress. (28) So that you shall also raise-up a raise-offering to YHWH from every tithe which you take from the children of Israel, and you shall give of it as a raise-offering to YHWH to Aaron the priest. (29) From all your gifts shall you raise-up for every raise-offering to YHWH, from all its best part, the most holy part from it. (30) And you shall say to them, when you raise-up the best part from it, it shall be reckoned to the Levites as the produce of the threshing floor and the produce of the winepress.
(31) You shall eat it in every place, you and your house, for it is your reward in exchange for your work in the tent of meeting. (32) You shall not bear sin upon it when you raise-up its best part; and the holythings of the children of Israel you shall not defile that you not die.” (Nu 18:25-32)

The Levites are commanded to raise-up a tithe out of the tithes they receive and give it to the priests. The Levites’ raise-offering is reckoned to them as the raise-offering of the Israelites from the threshing floor and the winepress.

In other words, the Israelites give the priests a raise-offering from the firstfruits of the crops directly out of the threshing floors and winepresses (Nu 18:12; Ex 22:28). But the Levites, who have no land, and therefore no threshing floors or winepresses, must give a tithe of their tithes to the priests as a fulfillment of their obligation to give a raise-offering to the priests out of the firstfruits of the threshing floor and winepresses. Once the Levite separates out this tithe of the tithes, he may eat his tithe in any place with his family. The only stipulation is that the Levite not defile his tithes which are “holy-things of the children of Israel”. Should the Levite defile the tithe, he will incur death at the hand of God.

What does it mean to “defile” the tithes in such a way that the Levite will incur death? We have already seen that the holy-things mentioned in Lev 22 are defiled by touching them or eating them in a state of impurity. But does the tithe have the same status as the holy-things of Lev 22? There is a small difference. The holy-things of Lev 22 may only be eaten by the priest, while
the tithe of Nu 18 is eaten by the Levite. Yet what the tithes and the priestly holy-things have in common is that both are described as kodshei bnei yisrael קָדְשֵׁי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל “the holy-things of the children of Israel”, both are “raise-offerings” which the children of Israel “raise up”, and a warning is given about both not to defile them since this would result in death. So although the tithe is not a priestly holy-thing it is nevertheless a holy-thing which may not be defiled by touching it or eating it while in a state of impurity. This is why Nu 18 concludes the passage on the tithes: “and the holy-things of the children of Israel you shall not defile that you not die” (Nu 18:32).

The Pilgrimage-Tithes

From Nu 18 alone we would certainly conclude that the tithes are the sole property of the Levites. Yet as is often the case in the Torah, a matter discussed in one passage is expanded on in another. To take only one of these passages by itself is to ignore the overall context and miss the meaning the Torah is trying to teach us. In Dt 12 we read:
“(17) You may not eat in your gates the tithes of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil… (18) But only before YHWH your God may you eat it in the place which YHWH your God chooses, you, your son, your daughter, your servant, your maidservant, and the Levi who is in your gates, and you shall rejoice before YHWH your God in all the pursuit of your hand. (19) Be careful lest you forsake the Levi, all your days on the earth.” (Dt 12:17-19; see also Dt 12:5-7, 11-12)

Here we see that the individual Israelite farmer is commanded to eat the tithe while on a pilgrimage to the chosen place (Tabernacle/ Temple). The Israelite farmer is also specifically warned not to forsake the Levite but to let him partake of the tithe. This pilgrimage-tithe is described in greater detail in Dt 14:
“(22) You shall surely tithe all the produce of your seed which comes out of the field, each year. (23) You shall eat before YHWH your God in the place which he chooses to cause his name to dwell, the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstborns of your cattle and flock, in order that you learn to fear YHWH your God all the days. (24) And when the way is too far for you so that you are unable to carry it, for the place which YHWH your God chooses to place his name is too far for you, for YHWH your God has blessed you, (25) You shall give for [it] silver, and you shall bind the silver in your hand and go to the place which YHWH you God chooses. (26) You shall give the silver for whatever your soul desires, cattle, flocks, wine, strong drink, and anything which your soul asks of you, and you shall eat there before YHWH your God and you shall rejoice, you and your house. (27) And the Levite which is in your gates you shall not forsake, for he has no portion or inherited-portion (nachalah (נַחֲלָה
with you.”

The Israelite farmer is clearly commanded to consume his tithe at the holy place although he must share it with the Levite who has no nachalah נַחֲלָה “inherited-portion” of his own. This pilgrimage-tithe may be redeemed and the money used to buy anything at the pilgrimage site.

Clearly in Dt 12 and 14 the tithe is not given in its entirety to the Levite as laid down in Nu 18. Nor is the tithe eaten “in every place” as in Nu 18 but only in the chosen place. So how do we explain this? Why does Nu 18 give the tithes to the Levite “in every place” but Dt 12, 14 give it to the Israelite farmer at the chosen place?

How Many Tithes?

The Rabbinical answer to this problem is that there are two tithes. The Rabbis refer to the tithe given to the Levite in Nu 18 as ma‘aser rishon מַעֲשֵׂר רִאשׁוֹן “first tithe” while the tithe eaten by the farmer on his pilgrimage they call ma‘aser sheni מַעֲשֵׂר שֵׁנִי “second tithe”. So in the Rabbanite scheme the Israelite farmer gives 20% of his income in tithes, 10% to the Levite and 10% for the pilgrimage. This explanation is actually quite old.

The Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Tanach, translates the word ma‘aser מַעֲשֵׂר in Dt 26:12 as to deuteron epidekaton to\ deu/teron e0pide/katon “the second tithe”; the word “second” is added to reflect the two
tithes theory.[ It should be noted that although the Septuagint translation was originally prepared in around 250 BCE, it
went through numerous revisions over the centuries, since translations are usually not treated with as much
reverence as texts in their original language. For example, in the oldest copies of the Septuagint found at
Qumran the divine name is written out (as IAW, pronounced Yah-oh) while in the later complete copies
we have from the 3rd Century CE the name is systematically replaced with kurios meaning “lord”.
Apparently the Pharisees got their hands on the Septuagint at some point and inserted many changes. It is
worth noting that the book of Tobit 1:6-8, which dates to c. 2nd century BCE, resolved the apparent
dissonance between Nu 18 and Dt 14 by requiring that three tithes be paid, one to the Levites, one on the
pilgrimage, and one for the poor. The three tithes theory is repeated by Josephus, Antiquities 4:8:22.]

The problem with the two tithes theory is that Dt 14:22-27 warns the Israelite farmer to share his tithe with the Levite “for he has no portion or inherited-portion (nachalah נַחֲלָה ) with you”. Now according to the two tithes theory, the Levite has already received his nachalah נַחֲלָה “inherited-portion” in the form of the “first tithe”. So why would the Levite need to double-dip by sharing in the “second tithe” along with the Israelite?

It is worth noting that when the Torah refers to ma‘asrot מַעַשְׂרוֹת “tithes” in the plural, it means the tenth of the various crops, not the first and second tithe. Thus in Dt 12:17, which according to the Rabbis is the “second tithe”, we read about “the tithes of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil”, i.e.the tithe of your grain and the tithe of your wine and the tithe of your oil.

Another problem with the two tithes theory arises from Dt 14’s reference to the firstborn. According to Nu 18, only a few verses before the commandment that the Levite be given the tithes, we read that the meat of the firstborn cattle, sheep, and goats is to be given to the Aaronic priests:
“(8) And YHWH said unto to Aaron… (17) But the firstborn bull, firstborn sheep, or firstborn goat you shall not redeem, they are holy (kodesh קֹדֶשׁ ); their blood you shall sprinkle on the altar, their chelevfats [or a definition of chelev-fats see Lev 3:3-4, 9-10, 14-17.]you shall burn as a fire-offering for a sweet smell to YHWH. (18) And their flesh shall be yours…”

So according to Nu 18 the firstborn animals are to be given to the priests. In contrast, Dt 14, which gives the tithes to the individual Israelite farmer, also gives the firstborn to the farmer:
“(23) You shall eat before YHWH your God in the place which he chooses to causes his name to dwell, the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstborns of your cattle and flock” (Dt 14:23; also Dt 12:17-18; Dt 15:19-23)

We see that Nu 18 gives the firstborn to the priest and the tithes to the Levites while Dt 14 gives both of these things to the individual Israelite farmer.

Tithe Firstborn
Nu 18 Levite Priest
Dt 14 Farmer Farmer

If we say there are two tithes, a “first tithe” and a “second tithe”, we must also say that there are two firstborns, the “first firstborn” and the “second firstborn”. Obviously this is not the case. A more likely explanation is that the Israelite farmer shares the firstborn with the priest and the Levite. Nu 18 which is speaking to the priests (in Nu 18:8 “you” = Aaron) emphasizes that
the priests will be allowed to partake of the meat of the firstborn. Dt 14 which is speaking directly to the individual Israelite farmer (in Dt 14:22 “you” = the Israelite farmer) reminds the farmer only to eat his firstborn at the chosen place and to share with the Levite. Dt 14 does not need to remind the farmer to share the firstborn with the priest because the priest was already given this right in Nu 18.

The situation with the tithe is more complicated than that of the firstborn.

The Levitical-tithe of Nu 18 can be eaten “in every place” while the Pilgrimage-tithe can only be eaten at the Temple. So it is not simply a matter of the Israelite sharing his tithe with the Levite. How then do we explain this apparent dissonance between Nu 18 and Dt 14? The answer appears at the end of Dt 14. After defining the pilgrimage-tithe, Dt 14 continues:
“(28) At the end of three years, you shall bring out every tithe of your produce from that year, and place it in your gates. (29) And the Levite shall come, for he has no portion or inherited-portion (nachalah (נַחֲלָה with you, and the stranger, and the orphan and the widow who are in your gates, and they shall eat and be satisfied, in order that YHWH your God shall bless you in all the actions of your hand which you do.” (Dt 14:28-29)

From Dt 14:28-29 it becomes clear that the tithes are distributed in three year cycles. In years 1 and 2 the tithes are eaten by the individual Israelite farmer at the chosen place along with the Levite. But in the third year the tithe is given directly to the Levite “in your gates”, that is, in whatever city or location the farmer happens to live. The Levite must share the third-year
tithe with the other landless people such as the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. When Nu 18 talked about the tithe given to the Levite “in every place” it must have been referring to this third-year tithe. Of course, Nu 18 does not actually mention the three-year cycle, only that the Levite will receive the tithe. Nor does Nu 18 mention that the Levite will be sharing his
tithe with the stranger, orphan, and widow. However, it is not unusual for the Torah to give a commandment in two different passages, each containing complementary information. For example, the commandment of tzitzit fringes, appears in Nu 15:37-41 and Dt 22:12. In Nu 15:37-41 we are taught that the tzitzit must contain a strand of blue while Dt 22:12 tells us that the
tzitzit are to be placed on the four corners of our garment. Nu 15 makes no reference to the four corners while Dt 22 make no reference to the blue string. From either passage alone we would not know how to fulfill the commandment of tzitzit. It is only by taking all the information that the Torah teaches us that we can get the full picture. [Some exegetes connect the Torah’s practice of giving bits and pieces of information in different passages to the prophecy in Isa 28:9-13 which says that because Israel did not want to obey YHWH the commandments became to us “precept upon precept, line upon line, here a little, there a little”. In other words, because of our rebelliousness the Torah seems complicated even though it is not. Isa 28:10 explains: “Who shall teach knowledge and who shall understand what is heard? The weaned of milk and the drawn off of breasts”. A small child just weaned off his mother’s milk should be able to understand]

We must take the same approach with the tithe. Nu 18 tells us that the tithe is to be given to the Levite. Dt 14:28-29 informs us that the tithe given directly to the Levite is only every third year and that the Levite must share his tithe with the stranger, orphan, and widow.

The Tithe-Confession

The third-year tithe is mentioned again in Dt 26. In this passage the Israelite farmer declares before YHWH that he has properly disposed of the thirdyear tithe:
“(12) When you finish tithing every tithe of your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, and they shall eat in your gates and be satisfied. (13) And you shall say before YHWH your God, I have removed the holy-thing (ha-kodesh הַקֹּדֶשׁ ) from my house and I have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, according to your entire commandment which you commanded me; I have not deviated from your commandment and I have not forgotten.

(14) I have not eaten of it in mourning [lit. in sorrow], nor have I eaten of it in impurity, nor have I given of it to the dead; I have obeyed the voice of YHWH my God, I have done according to all that you commanded me. (15) Look from your holy abode from the heavens and bless Your people Israel and the land which you have given us, as you have sworn to our fathers, a land flowing with milk and honey.”(Dt 26:12-15)

Dt 26 refers to the third-year as “the year of the tithe”. After giving the third-year tithe the Israelite farmer confesses before YHWH that he has fulfilled his obligation. It is worth noting that one of the things the Israelite farmer declares is that he has not eaten of the tithes while in a state of tum’ah טֻמְאָה impurity. We previously saw that the tithes was “holy to YHWH” (Lev 27:30) and in Nu 18:32 we saw that the Levite was warned not to defile it, which we understood based on Lev 22 to mean not to touch it or eat of it in a state of impurity. Dt 26 confirms the conclusion that the tithe is categorized as a holy-thing which may not be defiled through impurity.

Dt 26:13 even refers to the tithe specifically as a holy-thing: “I have removed the holy-thing (ha-kodesh הַקֹּדֶשׁ ) from my house”.

Animal-Tithes

The various passages in Deuteronomy which defined the three-year cycle of tithing all dealt with the produce-tithe. Dt 12:17 and Dt 14:23 talked about “the tithes of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil” while Dt 26:12 referred to “every tithe of your produce”. Yet no mention is made in Deuteronomy of the animal-tithe. This omission concerning the animaltithes is consistent with the rules of the tithes given in Deuteronomy. Thus Dt 14 allows the farmer to redeem the pilgrimage-tithe with silver. As already mentioned, the details of how to redeem tithes are given in Lev 27 where we are taught that the produce-tithe may be redeemed by adding 1/5 of the value while the animal-tithe may not be redeemed at all. If the animal-tithes are unredeemable then they can not possibly be included in Dt 14’s pilgrimage-tithe which is redeemable. So when we read in Deuteronomy about “the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil” (Dt 14:23) the omission of the animal-tithe is intended to exclude this type
of tithe.

While Deuteronomy excludes the animal-tithes, it seems that Nu 18 includes them. Nu 18:21 opens “And to the children of Levi, behold, I have given every tithe in Israel as an inherited-portion”. The phrase “every tithe in Israel” seems to be inclusive of both animal-tithes and produce-tithes. At the same time, Nu 18 does not say anywhere that it is specific to vegetation, so
there is no reason to think it excludes animals. This being the case it would seem that the animal-tithes belong exclusively to the Levites whereas the produce-tithes are only given to the Levites every third-year and even then they must share these latter tithes with the stranger, orphan, and widow.

Taking into account all the evidence from Lev 27, Nu 18, Dt 12, 14, and 26 we get the following picture concerning the tithes. A tenth of all newborn animals must be given to the Levites every year. These animals are holy to YHWH and may not be eaten while in a state of impurity, although they can be eaten anywhere, even outside the chosen place. A tenth of all produce
must also be given as a tithe. However, the produce-tithe is distributed according to a three-year cycle. In the first and second year the produce tithe is consumed by the farmer that grew it along with his family at the chosen-place. The farmer must share this pilgrimage-tithe with the Levite and eat it in a state of ritual-purity. In the third year, the produce-tithe is given to the Levite who shares it with the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. This tithe need not be eaten at the chosen place although it must also be eaten in a state of ritual-purity. The various rules concerning the tithe can be summarized by the following table:

Source of Tithe Timing Recipient Place of eating Required state of eating/ touching
Animaltithes ·cattle
·sheep every year Levite anywhere purity
·goats

years 1-2 ·Farmer
·shared withLevite chosen place purity
Producetithes ·field-crops ·Stranger
·fruits of the year 3 ·Orphan anywhere purity
tree ·Levite·Widow

The Tithe Today

How are we to keep the commandment of the tithes today? In this day and age only a small fraction of the population is farmers while most peoples make money, not agricultural produce. So the question is should we “raise up” 10% of our monetary earnings as a tithe?

The argument in favor of tithing money is that when the Torah was given Israel was an agrarian society and thus people earned agricultural produce.

The modern equivalent of agricultural produce is money. This position is seemingly supported by the standard translations of Scripture. In the KJV the reader is commanded:
“Thou shalt truly tithe all the increase of thy seed, that the field bringeth forth year by year.” (Deut. 14:22)

The principle here is to tithe “increase” which is simply just another word for “profit”. In ancient times it just so happened that most profit was in the form of agricultural produce which is why the verse refers to “increase of thy seed”. But in modern times profit is in the form of money. This seems to be confirmed by Dt 14:28 which in the KJV reads:
“At the end of three years thou shalt bring forth all the tithe of thine increase the same year, and shalt lay it up within thy gates” (Dt 14:28)

Here the verse seems to speak only of “increase” with no reference at all to agriculture. So based on this it seems natural to tithe money which is after all “increase”, profit.

The problem with this interpretation is that it is based on a bad translation of Scripture. In Hebrew the word translated as “increase” is tevu’ah תְבוּאָה which means “agricultural produce” or “crops”. Actually, the English word “increase” can also have the meaning of “produce of the earth”. [Random House Dictionary of the English Language: Unabridged Edition, New York 1983 p.722, under “produce”, definition 10.]

The problem is that the English word has an array of meanings while the Hebrew word is very specific to things that grow out of the ground. For example, in the laws concerning Jubilee years we read:
“If there are many years you shall raise its price and if there are few years you shall diminish its price; for he is selling you the number of [annual] crops (tevu’ot תְּבוּאֹת ).” (Lev 25:15)

To understand this law we must remember that according to the Torah any sale of a field in the Land of Israel is only temporary until the Jubilee year when it is returned to its ancestral heir. When you buy such a field, the price you are paying is not for the land but for the agricultural produce that can be produced by the field for the number of years remaining until Jubilee. In
this context it is clear that tevu’ah תְבוּאָה simply means “agricultural produce” or “crops”. It is not “increase” in a general sense but specifically that which grows out of the earth. Interestingly enough KJV translates tevu’ah תְבוּאָה in the above verse as “the years of the fruits” and not as “increase”. Similarly in Joshua 5:12 after the cessation of the Manna:
“…and they ate from the produce (tevu’ah תְבוּאָה ) of the land of Canaan in that year” (Jos 5:12)

This verse is telling us that after the Manna ceased the Israelites ate from the crops grown in the Land of Israel. Again KJV translates tevu’ah תְבוּאָה in this verse as “fruit” and not as “increase”.

An examination of the 43 instances of the word tevu’ah תְבוּאָה in the Tanach confirms that it is specific to agricultural produce.[Tevu’ah תְבוּאָה appears in the following verses: Gen 47:24, Ex 23:10, Lev 19:25; 23:39, 25:3, 7, 12, 15, 16, 20, 21, 22 (twice); Num 18:30 (twice), Deut 14:22, 28; 16:15; 22:9; 26:12; 33:14; Jos 5:12, 2Ki 8:6, Is 23:3; 30:23, Jer 2:3; 12:13; Ezek 48:18; Ps 107:37; Job 31:12; Prov 3:9, 14; 8:19; 10:16; 14:4; 15:6; 16:8; 18:20; Ecc 5:9; Neh 9:37; 2Chr 31:5; 32:28. Occasionally tevu’ah תְבוּאָה is used metaphorically to refer to the result of one’s actions, e.g. Prov 10:16. Compare the metaphorical use of other agricultural terms e.g. “reap” and “sow” in Job 4:8.]

So the interpretation which derives the monetary tithe from this word is simply incorrect. On the other hand, if the Torah meant for us to tithe profit or income then why didn’t it just say this? Even in biblical times people used silver as a form of currency so money did exist. Of course, the first coins were not actually invented until the 7th century BCE, but ingots or chunks of silver were nevertheless used to buy and sell. Because coins did not exist yet, the silver was weighed at each purchase. Thus we read that Abraham bought the cave of Machpelah for “four hundred shekels of silver current among the merchants (‘over lasocher עֹבֵר לַסֹּחֵר )”. “Shekel” was a standard weight and Abraham literally weighed out 400 shekels of silver. The phrase ‘over lasocher עֹבֵר לַסֹּחֵר “current among the merchants” literally means “that passes, belonging to the merchant”, i.e. silver that has passed from the hands of one merchant to the next and is thus trusted by merchants. It must be borne in mind that even until recent times whenever someone received silver or gold it always had to be reassessed to determine its quality and purity.

This was even true of silver and gold coins in recent centuries which were examined and weighed (thus the British currency “Pounds Sterling”, i.e. pounds of sterling silver). The Torah is telling us that Abraham paid in silver that “passed” through the hands of many merchants and was thus known to be trustworthy silver. [ A similar expression, kesef over כֶּסֶף עוֹבֵר “current silver” or literally: “silver that passes [from one merchant to another and is therefore trusted]” appears in 1Ki 12:5.] So in biblical times silver was used in a similar way to our modern money to buy and sell, even if it was not in the form of coins. Silver was not just used for major purchases like land. In 2Ki 6:25 we read about the famine during the siege of Samaria:
“And there was a great famine in Samaria: and, behold, they besieged it, until an donkey’s head was sold for eighty [shekels] of silver, and the fourth part of a cab of dove’s dung for five [shekels] of silver.”

Elisha foretells that at the end of the siege prices will drop:
“Thus says YHWH, at this time tomorrow, a se’ah of fine-flour for a shekel and two se’ahs of barley for a shekel in the gate of Samaria” (2Ki 7:1)

We see that silver was used like our modern money with standard prices and values linked to inflation. So the Torah could have commanded us to tithe our silver or simply to tithe any profit. Yet the Torah was very specific to agricultural produce and animals.

Let us assume for a moment that the Torah did intend for us to tithe money.

In Lev 27 we saw that there were two types of tithes, the produce-tithe and the animal-tithe. Each of these two tithes had its own laws and characteristics. The animal-tithe had to be chosen according to a specific method in which every tenth animal that passed under a staff was sanctified, regardless of its worth or value. In contrast, with produce, the tithe could be taken from any ten percent. Now which method would we use to tithe money? Would it be according to the principle of the animal-tithe or of the
produce-tithe? Again, Lev 27 teaches us that the produce-tithe may be redeemed by adding 1/5 its value while the animal-tithe may not be redeemed. Which of these two categories would money fall into? Silver was already used as a type of currency by merchants in the time of the Torah. If the Torah intended for us to tithe money surely it would have added the “silver-tithe” as a third category in Lev 27 so that we would know how to tithe silver and whether or not it could be redeemed.

Holy Money?

Let us consider another problem with a money-tithe. When produce is tithed the produce becomes a holy-thing which may only be eaten while in a state of ritual-purity and the same is true for the animal tithe. But what of money?

Are the specific coins and bills that are raised up as a tithe sanctified as holythings?

If so this means we must be careful not to defile those coins and bills. Let us remember the warning of Nu 18:32 “do not defile the holy-things of the children of Israel, so that you will not die”

If we were to tithe money and sanctify it to YHWH it would presumably have the same status as the half-shekel of silver, which the Torah requires that every Israelite pay annually to the Temple. Like the tithe, the halfshekel is also described as a terumah תְּרוּמָה “raise-offering” (Ex 30:13). The half-shekel was to be used for the Temple service as we read:
“and you shall take the silver of atonement from the children of Israel, and use it for the service of the tent of meeting”

However, the half-shekel was not simply spent as currency. It was sanctified to YHWH and therefore had to be used in a way that preserved it in a state of ritual purity. So instead the half-shekel of silver was used to fashion various objects used in the Tabernacle, as we read in Ex 38: “(25) The silver of those of the congregation who were counted came to 100 talents and 1775 shekels by the sanctuary weight, (26) a halfshekel a head, half a shekel by the sanctuary weight, for each one who
passed by the counters, from the age of twenty years up, 603,550 men.

(27) The 100 talents of silver were for casting the sockets of the sanctuary and the sockets for the curtain, 100 sockets to the 100 talents, a talent a socket. (28) And of the 1,775 shekels he made hooks for the posts, overlay for their tops, and bands around them.” (Ex 38:25-27)

The silver of the half-shekel was a holy raise-offering and therefore could not be defiled. So it had to be used in a way that preserved it in a state of ritual-purity. The solution was to cast it into sockets and other implements used in the Tabernacle. The same law would apply to any money tithe. The moment we “raise up” money as a tithe, those bills and coins become a raiseoffering.

As holy-things they may only be touched and used while in a state of ritual-purity. To defile them would mean death!

Of course, today we lack the red heifer so most people are in an irreversible state of tum’ah טֻמְאָה impurity. Even our Levites and priests are all rituallyimpure.

It seems that any attempt to perform the Torah commandment of tithing today would inevitably result in defilement of the tithe and death. So in this sense, it is better not to even sanctify a tithe by “raising” it up.

Who are Today’s Levites?

Another problem is who to give the tithes to. Who are the Levites today?

Many people have a last name Levi or a tradition that they are Levites. But Scripture has a much higher standard. In the time of Nehemiah there was a group of priests who also had a tradition that they were priests, but were unable to prove their lineage all the way back to Aaron. These uncertain priests were banned from the priesthood and specifically forbidden to eat of the holy-things (Ezra 2:62-63; Neh 7:64-65). There can be little doubt that we are to apply the same standard to Levites as can be gleaned from 2Chr 31. In that passage we read about how king Hezekiah set up a centralized distribution of tithes. Hezekiah did this because the nation had stopped giving tithes and other Torah-required holy-things, so he set up a chamber in the Temple to collect tithes and gifts from all over the Land and distribute them to deserving Levites everywhere. Hezekiah appointed officers, “to give portions to all the males among the priests, and to all that were reckoned by genealogies among the Levites.” (2Chr 31:19). The phrase “were reckoned by genealogies” translates the single Hebrew word hityaches הִתְיַחֵשׂ which means to prove one’s genealogy, as we find in Neh 7:5 “And my God put into my heart to gather together the nobles, and the
rulers, and the people, that they might be reckoned by genealogy (lehityaches לְהִתְיַחֵשׂ ). And I found the book of the genealogy (sefer hayachas סֵפֶר הַיַּחַשׂ ) of them which came up at the first, and found written therein”

It seems that only the Levites and Priests who can show their lineage documented in a sefer yachas סֵפֶר יַחַשׂ “book of genealogy” can participate in the Temple worship and eat of the holy-things. Anyone else is “banished from the priesthood” (Ezra 2:62). Now who today can prove their genealogy all the way back to Levi or Aaron, whether through written records or oral tradition?

Spiritual Levites?

Even if the physical Levites are “banished from the priesthood” perhaps we can fulfill the commandment of tithes by giving them to “spiritual Levites”, that is, people who fulfill the role of the Levites? The tithe was given to the Levites for doing the work of YHWH in the Temple. Perhaps we can give our tithes to someone who does YHWH’s work?

In the time of Korach the Israelites came to Moses with a similar argument.

YHWH had appointed the entire Israelite nation as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex 19:6). So why should Korach not be able to be a priest and why couldn’t anyone willing to serve in the Tabernacle be Levites? As Korach put it to Moses and Aaron: “…the entire congregation is holy, and YHWH is amongst them; so why do you lift yourselves up above the congregation of YHWH?” (Nu 16:3)

Although Korach meant well, he was not chosen as a priest by YHWH nor were his Israelite allies chosen as Levites. YHWH struck down Korach and his allies and then at the end of this incident, in Numbers 18, reaffirmed that he had chosen Aaron and his descendants as priests forever and the descendants of Levi as their helpers. It is in this very context, of non-Levites trying to usurp the genealogical Levites, that we learn about the Leviticaltithe!

Korach was not the only one to sin by inventing his own priesthood and Levites. This was also the great sin of Jeroboam:
“And he made priests from the nation who are not of the children of Levi” (1Ki 12:31)

This sin was so great that it is listed along with Jeroboam’s other great sins of setting up idols, sacrificing at high places, and inventing a pilgrimagefeast in the eighth month. Tithing to “spiritual Levites” is no different than the sin of Korach or the sin of Jeroboam.

Cleansing of the Levites

The current situation of having no proper Levites and priests and being in a perpetual state of tum’ah טֻמְאָה impurity is part of the punishment of exile.

Our ancestors sinned, rejecting Torah, and as a result we have been thrust into exile where we can not keep all the commandments of the Torah. This is what the prophet spoke:”And many days for Israel without the true God and without a
teaching priest and without Torah.” (2Chr 15:3)

We can recover some aspects of Torah by searching in Scripture. But others will require divine intervention. The restoration of the Levites will certainly require divine intervention, as we are taught in Malachi 3 concerning the coming of YHWH’s “messenger”:
“(1) Behold I send my messenger before Me… (3) And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver: and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer to YHWH an offering in righteousness. (4) Then shall the offering of Judah and Jerusalem be pleasant to YHWH, as in the days of old, and as in former years. ” (Mal 3:1-4)

What Malachi is describing is a future event which will result in the refining and purification of the Levites and the restoration of the sacrifices. Until this happens we cannot give the tithes to the Levites since this would result in their defilement. Our only choice in this era of exile is to refrain from “raising-up” tithes since this very act sanctifies them and sets us up for defilement and death.

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