A Brief Summary of Tithes and Charity

An illustration of bringing bikkurim to the kohen (from the Providence Lithograph Company)

This week’s double parasha, Behar and Bechukotai, begins with the laws of Sabbaticals and Jubilees, and ends with some laws related to tithes. We see here the Torah’s incredible concern for public welfare and social justice—far ahead of its time. The Torah outlines a lengthy system of rules to ensure that the impoverished and the disadvantaged are taken care of, that people have equal opportunities, and that both wealth and land is redistributed to address the disparity between rich and poor, which inevitably results in most societies.

We see, for instance, that at the Jubilee year (every 50th), all lands reverted to their original owners. In Biblical times, when a person purchased land, they were really only leasing it for a number of years, no more than the number of years left until the next Jubilee. So, even if a family had become destitute in the intervening years, and had to sell off all of their land, they could rest assured knowing that they would eventually get their ancestral plot of land back, and have an opportunity to rebuild their wealth. This would ensure that the mega-rich do not swallow up land and grow ever richer (as we unfortunately see all too often today, such as Bill Gates being the largest owner of farmland in America, and Mark Zuckerberg buying nearly an entire Hawaiian island despite the protest of locals).

Another example is that of slavery. We learned previously (in parashat Misphatim) that while slavery was permitted, one could only be a slave for a maximum of six years. In the seventh year, all slaves were freed. If a slave wanted to remain with his master, he could choose to forgo his freedom in the seventh year. (Why would a slave wish to remain a slave? In Jewish law, the slave actually had a great deal of rights and privileges. This included a full day off on Shabbat, sleeping in the same kind of bed as his master, and eating at his master’s table. That’s one reason why our Sages famously stated: “one who acquires a slave acquires a master”!) Even if the slave wished to remain enslaved, this would only last until the Jubilee year (and therefore no longer than 49 years). At the Jubilee, all slaves would be freed regardless of circumstances. A person who had just become enslaved a year before the Jubilee would be free, as would a person who had chosen to continue serving his master for several decades. The Torah does not allow perpetual slavery, and severely frowns upon the slave who chooses to remain enslaved.

And then there are the many different tithes and donations mandated by the Torah to take care of the poor and ill, orphans, widows, strangers, and public servants. The first of these is pe’ah, the “corner”. In those days, the vast majority of the population were farmers, and the Torah required that each farmer leave a corner of their fields to be freely consumed by the destitute and needy (Leviticus 19:9). The Mishnah (Peah 1:2) clarifies that this corner must be at least one-sixtieth of the area of the entire plot. The Ba’al haTurim (Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, 1269-1343) notes that the gematria of the term pe’at sadecha (פאת שדך) in the verse above is equal to hape’ah: echad mishishim (הפאה אחד משישים), proving numerically that the minimum is a sixtieth!

The Mishnah adds further details, including that a traveller who wasn’t actually poor, but at that moment had nothing to eat, was allowed to take from another’s pe’ah (5:4). Interestingly, a poor person was defined as one who has less than 200 zuz of funds—quite a sizeable amount (8:8). More intriguing still, one’s equity didn’t count, for as long as they had a mortgage they were not considered true owners yet, and could not be forced to sell their home to pay for food!

In addition to pe’ah, there was leket, “gleanings”. Fruits that had fallen from their trees, for example, were left on the ground for the poor and strangers (Leviticus 19:9-10, 23:22). The Mishnah states that a person who tried to circumvent this by placing baskets under their trees to catch falling fruit was considered a thief! (Peah 7:3) Similar to this is the law of the “forgotten sheaf”, omer ba’sadeh (Deuteronomy 24:19). During the harvest season, if a person forgot to bring in one of the bundles, they could no longer go back to collect it. It had to remain for the disadvantaged. God tells the owner not to worry about it, leave it for “the stranger, the orphan, and the widow—in order that the Lord your God will bless you in all your undertakings.” There is an amazing idea buried in these words, suggesting that one who “forgot” in this situation was not really erring on their own, but was actually playing a part in God’s greater plan. That sheaf was meant to be forgotten, for there is a destitute person in need of it, and God promises that He will surely repay the owner for that “forgotten” sheaf!

Bikkurim, Terumah, and Ma’aser

From one’s harvest, a person would remove a series of donations to give to others. The Mishnah (Terumot 3:6-7) states the order of these deductions as follows: bikkurim, terumah, ma’aser rishon, ma’aser sheni. We start with the bikkurim, the “first fruits”. The Torah says that a farmer would take the first fruits from their crop, in a basket, and take them to Jerusalem (Deuteronomy 26:2). Rashi explains here that the wording of the verse implies only fruits from the seven species of Israel: wheat, barley, dates, figs, grapes, pomegranates, and olives. When a farmer would see the first ripened fruit on a tree (Rashi brings a fig as an example), he would tie a string around it and declare it to be a “first fruit”. All these firsts from the entire crop would be placed in baskets and taken to Jerusalem between Shavuot and Sukkot, and handed over to the kohanim.

After bikkurim, the farmer had to separate another portion for the kohanim. Since the priests were generally not permitted to own land (unless a certain plot was specifically donated to them), and they strictly served the public, they depended on the donations of the landowners to survive. Each farmer would take a portion of their harvest to support the kohanim. Once again, the Mishnah (Terumot 4:3) states that the minimum is a sixtieth, though a more common amount was a fortieth, and some gave a thirtieth. This portion is called terumah gedolah, the “great offering”, and also included wine, oil, and wool (Deuteronomy 18:4).

Then, the farmer would remove a whole tenth of their harvest to give to the Levites. This is ma’aser rishon, the first tithe. The Levite who receives his portion then takes a tenth of it himself and gives it to the kohanim (Numbers 18:26). The ma’aser dates at least as far back as Abraham, who gave a tenth to the priest Melchizedek (Genesis 14:20). As explained before, Melchizedek was Shem, the son of Noach, and is described as God’s first true kohen. We later see how Jacob promised God that he would donate back ten percent of whatever God gave Him (Genesis 28:22). Interestingly, the Book of Jubilees (ch. 32) states that Jacob also “donated” and consecrated one of his sons to God: he lined up his children, then counted from the youngest up, the tenth being his son Levi (ie. the third-oldest). This is one reason why the Levites ultimately became the priestly tribe!

Finally, there is ma’aser sheni, the “second tithe”. From the portion leftover after the previous deductions, a person removes another ten percent. This second tithe was used for different purposes depending on the year. In the third and sixth year of the Sabbatical cycle, it was donated to the poor, orphaned, and widowed. This ma’aser ani has been noted by historians as the oldest recorded instance of institutionalized charity in the world! In the first, second, fourth, and fifth years, ma’aser sheni was taken to Jerusalem for the pilgrimage festivals to be enjoyed in the celebrations. Alternatively, a person could sell that produce and spend the money in Jerusalem during the pilgrimage (Deuteronomy 14:22-26). It should also be mentioned that along with the ma’aser sheni produce taken to Jerusalem, one would also take neta reva’i: a newly-planted tree was orlah and its fruits could not be eaten in the first three years. In the fourth year, its fruit would be taken to Jerusalem in celebration. From the fifth year onward, it would be harvested and consumed normally.

All in all, the Sages enumerate a total of 24 “gifts” for the kohanim. More than half of them deal with sacrificial Temple offerings. The donations above are among those gifts, as is challah, donating the firstborn of kosher domesticated animals, and pidyon haben.

Charity, Then and Now

In addition to all of the above, the Torah instructs us to give additional sums to charity: “When you shall encounter a poor person… do not harden your heart or close your hand from your destitute brother. You shall surely open your hand to him and provide him with all that he lacks…” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8) Exactly how much should be given is not specified.

Today, and for the past two millennia, we have not had a Temple or serving priests. Thus, the various terumot and ma’aserot do not apply directly (they do today for farmers in Israel). So, how can the average Jew fulfill the various mitzvot of tithes? For us, all of these tithes have been lumped together under one broad category of “charity”. The concept of ma’aser, a tenth, transferred over to tzedakah, so Jewish law encourages each person to donate at least ten percent of their net income to charity. When the Sages saw that some people donated so much that they would end up having too little for themselves, they set a limit of 20% (see Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 249:1). This limit does not apply to the mega-rich, who can donate far more than 20% and still be mega-rich! It has been pointed out that there is a beautiful allusion to the 10-20% rule in the word tzedakah (צדקה) itself: dividing the tzadi (90) by the kuf (100) gives 90%, and dividing the dalet (4) by the hei (5) gives 80%, suggesting that one keeps 80-90% for their own needs, and donates 10-20% to charity!

In today’s incredibly-expensive world, is it reasonable for an average person to be able to donate 10-20% of their net income? Many poskim say that one pays ma’aser on their net income, minus other expenses that they spend to earn income, such as certain utilities, transportation costs, office space, etc. It is also generally agreed upon that paying for children’s Jewish education counts as ma’aser, too. After all, Jewish schools are non-profit organizations, and educating children is a big mitzvah. More broadly, some hold that all basic expenses for supporting children over the age of six counts as charity, as does supporting one’s elderly parents (see Mishneh Torah, Matnot Aniyim 10:16). With this in mind, aiming for 10% charity is a reasonable goal, and for those who are blessed with even more wealth, 20% shouldn’t be too difficult either.

The Talmud (Bava Batra 9a) states that charity is equal to all the other mitzvot combined, though it warns that giving charity to unworthy causes is not a mitzvah at all (Bava Kamma 16b). Giving to charity can tear up a negative Heavenly decree pronounced upon a person, and can change one’s fate for the better (Rosh Hashanah 16b). It can even save one from death (Shabbat 156a). The Vilna Gaon illustrated this through the word machatzit hashekel, another yearly monetary donation given to the Temple in ancient times. The term machatzit (מחצית) has a tzadi—standing for tzedakah—right in the middle of the letters that spell met and chai, “dead” and “alive”. A shekel donated has the power to tear right through a Heavenly decree of capital punishment.

Interestingly, the Sages (Pesachim 8a) note that one can even give to charity conditionally this way. Generally, a person is not allowed to do a mitzvah for the sake of some personal gain; it should be done for the sake of the mitzvah itself, and fulfilling God’s word. However, a person who says, “I will donate to charity on condition that so-and-so lives” is permitted to do so, and is considered righteous, even though the mitzvah is not for the “sake of Heaven”.

In fact, we learn from the Tanakh that charity is the one thing through which a person is allowed to “test” God: “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, and let there be food in My House, and thus put Me to the test—said the God of Hosts. I will surely open the floodgates of the sky for you and pour down blessings upon you without end.” (Malachi 3:10) God promises that a person who gives generously will ultimately be blessed with even more in return. The Ben Ish Chai (Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad, 1832-1909) beautifully taught that the atbash transformation (where a letter is replaced with its opposite, ie. aleph with tav, beit with shin, etc.) of the word tzedakah is also tzedakah! (A tzadi transforms to a hei, a dalet to kuf, kuf back to dalet, and hei back to tzadi.) A person who gives will get right back. With charity, everyone wins.