At the end of this week’s Torah portion (Numbers 18:21-32) the Levites are instructed to tithe a part of their earnings to God. The Torah emphasizes this because all of the Children of Israel are obligated to give one tenth of their produce and their income as an offering to God. Even the Levites, the priesthood is not exempt from this most important offering.
What makes this different in part is that the Levites had no property of their own. No fields or orchards of their own. According to our Torah their earnings came from the tithes of the other Israelites. They ate of it and fed their families on the tithings of the people.
But then they must turn around and set aside an additional tenth of what they received. The High Priest receives it from them for upkeep in the Temple and for God.
The other major section in the Torah on tithing comes from the book of Deuteronomy 14:22-27 and Deuteronomy 26:12.
But the oldest mention of tithing comes from the story of Abraham who gives a tenth of his the spoils of war against the four Kings who captured his nephew Lot to Melchizedek.
But our Sages in the Talmud tried to synthesize some conflicting information on tithing. They determined that tithing consists of the following responsibilities:
Terumah: A gift to a Kohen who eats it only in a state of ritual purity. It is sacred food and is a sixtieth or fortieth of the crop. It comes from wine, corn, oil, vegetables or fruit.
Maaser Rishon: A tenth of the remainder of the crop is the first tithe. It is given to the Kohen or a Levite. But a Levite must separate a tenth of that give it to a Kohen and this is what our torah portion speaks of. This part given by the Levite is called the terumat maaser.
Maaser Sheni: This is the second tithe and must be taken to Jerusalem and eaten there. It can be converted into a sum of money and then food can be purchased in Jerusalem to be eaten there.
Maaser Oni: This tithe was the second tithe that was given to the poor in year three and six of the sabbatical year cycle.
The rabbis ruled that the tithing was only in the Land of Israel or when a majority of the Jews lived in the land of Israel. Once the Temple was destroyed we could not give the Terumah offering.
There is a discussion of maaser kesafim-which is a tithing of all of one’s earnings. But there is a debate among the rabbis if this is an actual law derived from Torah or from the Rabbis.
What becomes clear from all of our Sages is that giving tzedakah is critical. Everyone must give tzedakah. While there is debate about the percentage and whether that percentage is on gross income or net income after certain expenses like one’s children’s education, the Shulchan Aruch seems to puts the giving of tzedakah into four categories: the ideal for a very wealthy person; the ideal for an average person; the recommended minimum for an average person; and the absolute minimum that a person should give each year.
If a person can afford it she should give as much tzedakah as the poor require.
If she is unable to give that much she should give at least one fifth: the first year from her capital, and from then on every year one fifth of her profits.
One tenth is the average quantity that a person should give, less than this is miserliness.
A person should not give less than three shekels a year to charity
In other words, while tithing is a standard for the average person even the poorest among us must give some tzedakah. So this week give a gift of tzedakah to the charity of your choice.