By Rabbi Moshe Bloom
Torah VeHa’aretz Institute
“If G-d remains with me … and of all that You give me, I will set aside a tithe for you.” (Bereishit 28:20–22)
A Tenth Of Everything
Yaakov Avinu is not the first person in the Torah who uses the term ma’aser; Avraham Avinu (then Avram) did so before him. In Parashat Lech-Lecha, he gives a tenth of the war spoils to Malki Tzedek, king of Shalem, priest to G-d on High. However, there is a novelty here. By Avraham we see tithing as a one-time occurrence; Yaakov, on the other hand, commits himself to tithing on a regular basis. It is not for naught that the Ba’alei HaTosafot in their commentary on the Torah cite the Midrash that this is the source of giving monetary tithes, ma’aser kesafim, since the Biblical obligation for ma’aser is stated with regard to animals and produce alone (the major branches of livelihood in those times), with no mention of other forms of monetary profit. It is interesting to note that Yaakov Avinu does not make an amorphous promise about the amount he will give; rather, he feels it important to set a fixed rate—which actually isn’t so high (those in the middle class often pay much higher rates of income tax), but is also not at all marginal in terms of one’s regular cash flow.
Our Sages (Bereishit Rabbah 70:7) understand that this tithe is not necessarily limited to monetary profit, but rather refers to one-tenth of anything G-d blesses him with, including children. The tribe of Levi is one out of the ten sons that is consecrated for service in the Beit HaMikdash (the Midrash discusses why only one son out of everyone is dedicated as a tithe). This fact teaches us that Yaakov’s pledge goes beyond a specific, one-time commitment made in a time of crisis, but rather is a general approach in the service of G-d.
Regular Service Of G-d: The Key To Genuine Holiness
There are times when we feel a major awakening to serve G-d—desiring to reach lofty heights in prayer, throwing ourselves into intense Torah study, or donating a large sum of money to charity. All of this is wonderful, but on its own is insufficient to transform us into a vessel for the resting of the Divine Presence. To truly become a receptacle for sanctity, we need to adopt a way of life such that in any given situation and in any emotional state we will be connected to G-d—not only at rare moments of spiritual arousal. Ma’aser is the classic example of this. When we make sure to set aside at least a tenth of our resources that G-d puts at our disposal, and we return them to Him, we remain constantly connected. Of course, if we want to donate even more, we can and that is wonderful (there are limits to this as well, and we may not donate more than one-fifth to charity), but the minimum that binds us to G-d is a constant, and we are to give this amount no matter what.
Ma’aser And Terumah: Two Types Of Divine Service
It is interesting to note that there are two types of gifts we are supposed to give from our produce. There is the terumah gedolah, given to the kohen, for which the Torah did not set a specific rate—neither an upper nor lower limit (only that the entire granary should not be dedicated as terumah); even one stalk of wheat is enough to cover all of the produce. While the Sages institutionalized the framework for giving terumah to a greater degree, they still left room for personal choice, and offered several options for terumah: 1/40th (ayin tovah, generous), 1/50th (ayin beinonit, standard), and 1/60th (ayin ra’ah, stingy). Moreover, apparently to preserve the original spirit of terumah, even after fixing rates, the Sages instituted that terumah be given only as an estimate, not as an exact measurement (Mishnah Terumot 1:7).
As opposed to the terumah gedolah, there is the ma’aser given to a Levi, including the terumat ma’aser, the tenth-of-the-tenth that the Levi gives to the kohen. Here we have a fixed rate, which may not be set aside based on a rough estimate, but rather based on a precise calculation (“do not frequently tithe by estimation” Avot 1:16). This is the same type of ma’aser that Yaakov Avinu is talking about, which expresses this fundamental element in the service of G-d. While not extraordinary, tithing on a regular basis acts to preserve and renew the force of giving and permanently binds us to G-d.
Rabbi Moshe Bloom is head of the English department of Torah VeHa’aretz Institute. Torah VeHa’aretz Institute (the Institute for Torah and the Land of Israel) engages in research, public education, and the application of contemporary halachic issues that come to the fore in the bond between Torah and the Land of Israel today. Recently, the Institute opened an English department to cater to the English-speaking public living in Israel and abroad. For additional information and inquiries, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 972-8-684-7325.