views updated Jun 27 2018



The rendering of tithes of property for sacral purposes was common all over the ancient Near East, though well-documented and first-hand evidence concerning tithes comes mainly from Mesopotamia (ešrû/eširtu; cf. Dandamaev, in bibl.). Although these Mesopotamian documents come from the neo-Babylonian period (sixth century b.c.e.), there is no doubt that the institution as such is much older. In the Syro-Palestine area the tithe (m ʿ a šārtu; cf. Heb. ma ʿ ser) is found in Ugarit in the 14th century b.c.e. (Palais royal d'Ugarit, 3 (1955), 147:9–11). The tithe was not assigned to temples only. As may be learned from i Samuel 8:15, 17 and from Ugarit (in the aforementioned example), the tithe could also be a royal tax which the king could exact and give to his officials. This ambiguity of the tithe, as a royal due on the one hand and as a sacred donation on the other, is to be explained by the fact that the temples to which the tithe was assigned were royal temples (cf. esp. Amos 7:13) and, as such, the property and treasures in them were put at the king's disposal. This can best be exemplified by the two instances of tithe mentioned in older sources of the Pentateuch (je). In Genesis 14:20 Abraham gives a tithe (after his battle with the four kings of the north) to Melchizedek the king-priest of Shalem (= Jerusalem) and in Genesis 28:22 (cf. also Amos 4:4) Jacob vows to pay a tithe at Beth-El, the "royal chapel" of the Northern Kingdom (Amos 7:13). The mention of specifically these two "royal temples" in connection with the tithe is not a coincidence. It seems that these two traditions have an etiological slant. The institution of collecting tithes in the northern royal chapel Beth-El is linked to Jacob, the ancestor hero par excellence of the northern tribes, while the institution of the tithe in the royal sanctuary of Jerusalem is traced back to Abraham, whose traditions are mainly attached to the south. As is well known, the kings controlled the treasures of palace and temple alike (i Kings 15:18; ii Kings 12:19; 18:15), which is understandable, since they were responsible for the maintenance of the sanctuary and its service not less than for the service of the court (cf. Ezek. 45:17, etc.). It stands to reason that the tithe, which originally was a religious tribute, came to be channeled to the court, and was therefore supervised by royal authorities. This is actually attested in ii Chronicles 31:4ff. where Hezekiah is said to organize the collection and the storage of the tribute including the tithe. Though the description of the event comes from a late and tendentious source, its authenticity is supported inasmuch as the Mesopotamian tithe was organized along similar lines (cf. also the organization of Neh. 10:38; 12:44, 47; 13:5, 12). The annual tithe of the Carthaginians, which was sent to the Temple of Melqart in Tyre (Diodorus 20:14), is to be understood in a like manner. The Temple of Melqart was the state treasury of Tyre, and so the tribute paid by the Carthaginians had a political character besides its sacred one.

A further analogy between the sacred tithe and the royal one may be found in the priestly ordination, according to which the tithes of grain and "flow from the vat" are allocated to the levites in return for the services that they perform in the Tabernacle (Num. 18:21). A similar procedure is attested in the Ugaritic grants where the king of Ugarit gives the tithe of a whole city to his official for his loyal service (Palais royal d'Ugarit, 3 (1955), 16:153, 244; cf. 16:132, etc.), and, like the tithe given to the levites, it consists of grain and beverage. The same phenomenon is encountered in i Samuel 8:15 where the king is said to give away the tithe (grain and wine) taken from the people to his servants. The levites were actually the faithful officials of David whom he put in charge of the sacred treasures (i Chron. 26:20ff.; cf. B. Mazar, in: vts, 7 (1960), 197ff.) and the law in Numbers 18 might reflect a Davidic grant (see jaos, 90 (1970), 202) of a tithe to the levites. Grants to temple personnel are also known from Mesopotamia, and, as in the case of the levites, the property given passes on to their sons.

The property that was subject to tithe in Israel was grain, new wine, and new oil (Deut. 14:23, etc.), as well as cattle and sheep (Lev. 27:32). However, in a general context the tithe appears to embrace all kinds of property. Abraham gives Melchizedek a tenth of everything, which seems to refer to the booty of the war, and Jacob vows that "he will set a tithe from all that God will give him" (Gen. 28:22). In Mesopotamia, there is evidence of tithes from agricultural produce, cattle and sheep, slaves, donkeys, wool, cloth, wood, metal production, silver, gold, et al. It seems, therefore, that the specification in the Priestly and Deuteronomic codes refers only to the most common objects of tithing in Israel.

From the foregoing, it might seem that the tithe was an obligatory tribute, as is actually stated in Deuteronomy 14:22 and as conceived at the time of the Second Temple. However as Y. Kaufmann observed (see bibl.), the impression gained from the earlier sources (je and p) is that the tithe is a kind of vow or voluntary gift. Thus Jacob's tithe in Genesis 28 is clearly linked to a vow, and by the same token Abraham gives the tithe to Melchizedek of his own free will (Gen. 14:19–20). Amos also mentions the tithe within the framework of voluntary offerings (4:4–5), while the law of tithe in Leviticus 27:32–33 occurs in a chapter dealing with sacred free gifts of various kinds (the firstlings there, verses 26–27, are an exception to the rule: these cannot be dedicated since they are holy by virtue of their birth as firstlings). The evidence of Numbers 18:21ff. is less conclusive. The general impression of the tithe here is one of an obligatory gift because it occurs side by side with first fruit and firstlings due to the priests (18:12ff.). It seems that the tithe, whose main purpose was the maintenance of the Temple and its personnel (see below), was provided by way of an obligatory tax as well as by voluntary donation. It is only Deuteronomy which stripped the tithe of its original purpose and turned it into an obligatory gift to the destitute and the poor (see below).

The Way of Processing and Spending the Tithe

Underlying all the sources in the ancient Near East dealing with the tithe is the notion of a tax indispensable for the maintenance of the temple and its personnel (except Deuteronomy to be discussed below). As may be learned from the Mesopotamian documents, the tithe was stored in the treasuries of the temple, and some of the temple representatives were put in charge of these stores. The cattle were marked with a temple mark, and the tithe of grain and dates could be converted into money when desirable. In the Babylonian documents, evidence is also to be found on the question of how the tithe was spent by the temple. Agricultural produce was mostly destined for consumption by the temple personnel but was also applied to the maintenance of various enterprises and institutions attached to the temple. Cattle and sheep were mainly used for sacrificial purposes. The tithe was collected by representatives of the temple authorities, who were also responsible for the transportation of the products to the temple. Every citizen was obliged to pay tithes and even the temple personnel and the collectors of the tithes themselves were not exempted from the due.

A similar picture is obtained when the biblical sources dealing with the tithe are examined in conjunction with the outside sources. Admittedly, as will be shown, one has to take into account the different attitudes to tithe in the various sources of the Pentateuch, and also the development of this institution at the period of the Second Temple. However, in general, the nature of the tithe and the way of processing and spending it is quite similar to that known from the outside sources, as presented in the previous paragraph. That the tithe was stored in the storehouse of the Temple may be learned from Malachi 3:10; Nehemiah 10:38–39; 12:44; 13:5, 12–13; and ii Chronicles 31:4ff. The same sources provide information about the custodians of these stores and about the way in which the tithe was distributed among the Temple personnel (Neh. 13:13). Furthermore, the evidence in Nehemiah 10:38 about levites as tithe collectors in the provincial cities, which some have regarded as a gloss, is now corroborated by Mesopotamian data, according to which tithe collectors were recruited from the temple administration. Although this data is from later sources, this does not mean that the whole procedure was a late invention, especially in view of the fact that the same procedure is attested in outside sources. In fact this is the only realistic way in which the tithe can be conceived. The conversion of tithes of the produce of the land into money found in Mesopotamia is also mentioned in Leviticus 27:31 and Deuteronomy 14:24–25 (though with the difference that in Deuteronomy one is not bound to pay an additional fifth of the tithe for the redemption), and the fact that the tithe collectors themselves are bound to pay tithes is quite instructive for understanding the law about the tithes that the levites have to remove from their income (Num. 18:25ff.).

The Tithe According to the Various Pentateuchal Sources

There is no law about the tithe in the je source (see *Pentateuch), but its view of the tithe is revealed in Genesis 14:20 and 28:20–22. As already indicated, the tithe in these passages is seen as tribute to the royal chapel.

In the Priestly literature, laws of tithe are found in two places: Leviticus 27:30–33 and Numbers 18:21–32. According to the former law, the tithe is given from "the seed of the ground," from "the fruit of the tree," and from "the cattle and the sheep." The tithe is "holy to the Lord," and if one wishes to redeem the tithe from the seed or from the fruit, he must add one fifth; the tithe from the herd or the flock cannot be redeemed. Here the tithe turns into the property of the Sanctuary, which also accounts for the fact that the tithe of the animals cannot be redeemed since these are considered as potential sacrifices. The tithe of the seed and fruit is mainly assigned to the priests and their household (cf. Lev. 22:11), and this actually explains the fifth one has to add if he wishes to redeem the tithe. According to Leviticus 22:14, if a layman consumes sacred food (unwittingly), he has to pay the value of the food plus one fifth. That gifts "to the Lord" are identical with gifts "to the priest" may be deduced clearly from those instances in which the phrase le-yhwh is supplemented with the word la-Kohen (Lev. 23:20; Num. 5:8), and from the verses in which it is explicitly said that donations brought to the Lord belong to the priests (Num. 18:12, 13, 14). Indeed the whole chapter of Leviticus 27 deals with dedications to the Temple treasury, which include the holy donations assigned to the priest (cf. verse 26).

According to the law in Numbers 18:21ff., the tithe of the grain and "the flow from the vat" (i.e., wine and oil) has to be given to the levite, who in turn has to set apart one-tenth of the tithe which they received "to the Lord," that is to the priests. It is thus apparent that in the Priestly literature two different views concerning the tithe are to be discerned. According to the stratum embodied in Leviticus 27 (an appendix to the Holiness Code which chronologically antedates the Priestly Code), the tithe is considered the property of the Sanctuary and the priesthood. According to the later stratum (Num. 18:21ff.), the tithe is given to the levites who were the non-officiating class of the Temple personnel. It is not known exactly what caused this change. According to M. Weinfeld, the tithe given to the levites is related to the levitical cities (see bibl.), which were given to the levites (Num. 35:1–8) out of the land apportioned to the Israelites. As is now known, the levitical cities as listed in Joshua 21 (cf. i Chron. 6:39–66) reflect the Davidic period. Some of the listed cities were not occupied before David, and, on the other hand, the geographic scope of the list could not be imagined in the post-Solomonic period (see W.F. Albright, in: L. Ginzberg Jubilee Volume (1945), 49–73 (Eng. sect.)). According to B. Mazar (in: vts, 7 (1960), 193–205), these were the fortified cities where royal granaries and warehouses were kept under the supervision of the levites. Since the tithe in its original form was a tax associated with palace and Temple alike (see above), it stands to reason that these cities, which were counted as temple cities (cf. the high priest in the levitical cities of refuge, Num. 35:9ff. and see Mazar, ibid.), served as storages of the tithe. As already indicated, the practice of granting a city together with its tithe to the loyal official of the king is known from Ugarit, which might corroborate evidence concerning David's granting of cities with their tithes to the levites. These were his loyal functionaries and representatives, especially in the newly occupied areas and on the borders (i Chron. 23–26, esp. 26:20ff.; cf. Mazar, ibid.), and therefore were entrusted with supervising the collection of the tithe and guarding it. It seems that the tithe given to the levites was not only assigned to them for private consumption but was mainly destined for the upkeep of these royal temple cities. On the other hand, the tenth of the tithe which was given by the levites to the priesthood was needed for the maintenance of the central shrine in Jerusalem. (Before the Temple had been built, the "tent of David" served as the central sanctuary of Israel, ii Sam. 6:17; i Kings 3:15; cf. Isa. 16:5; Amos 9:11.)

The Wellhausenian view that the priestly tithe is a reflection of post-Exilic reality (see Wellhausen, Proleg, 152ff.) does not hold for several reasons. (1) The general hypothesis about the post-Exilic background of the Priestly literature has been severely questioned (see *Pentateuch; cf. Kaufmann, Y., Religion). (2) The number of the levites in the Second Temple period was very small, and it is inconceivable that at this time the tithe would be assigned to this small minority, while the priests who exceeded the levites in large proportion received only a tenth of the levite tithe. (3) Even in the period of the Second Temple, the tithe was not given to the levites but to the priests (see below), and there was a general slackness in the fulfilling of the tithe duty in this period because of the justified feeling that the allocation of the tithe to the levites did not fit the new reality, i.e., the period of Restoration. (4) The evidence about the tithe from the ancient Near East, especially from Mesopotamia, completely refuted the arguments of Wellhausen, according to which the tithe was originally eaten by its owner and only during the Second Temple period appropriated by the priests and the Temple personnel. As the evidence cited above indicates, the appropriation of the tithe by the Temple and its personnel was a natural feature of this institution and not vice versa. (5) Wellhausen's contention that the tithe of the cattle and sheep is a late invention which was not in existence even at the time of Nehemiah (10:38–39, etc.) is very strange and actually contradicted by the evidence of the Bible (i Sam. 8:17 – although this refers to royal tithe) and by the Mesopotamian texts in which tithe of animals is referred to very often. (6) As will be shown below, the development of the tithe – like other sacred institutions in ancient Israel – reflects a trend toward secularization and not as Wellhausen argued toward sacralization (see *Pentateuch).

Tithe in the Deuteronomic Code

The law of Deuteronomy (14:22ff.) prescribes the setting aside of a tithe of grain, wine, and oil every year and its consumption at the chosen place (i.e., the central sanctuary). The tithe may be converted into money which is to be spent on the festive meal in the chosen place. Every third year, however, the tithe has to be left in the local settlement, for the benefit of the levite, who has no land of his own, and the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow (14:28–29). After giving away the tithe to these personae miserabiles, the owner has to proclaim a confession in which he declares that he has given it to the indigent and not desecrated it by using it for impure purposes (26:12–14).

This novelty of eating the tithe instead of giving it away to the Sanctuary and its ministrants (as was the case before) is to be explained against the background of the cultic reform which stands at the basis of the Deuteronomic law code and especially Deuteronomy 12–19. After the abolition of the provincial sanctuaries (in the levitical cities) and the provincial cultic officials there (levites), there was no more need for the tithe, which was destined for the maintenance of these institutions. However, in order to preserve this old sacred institution, the Israelite is commanded to observe the custom of setting aside a tithe from his yield and guarding its holiness by eating it only in the chosen place and not letting it be defiled. The preservation of another old feature of the tithe is also expressed by the allocating of the tithe every third year to the levite. This year is called "the year of the tithe" (26:12), which seems to preserve the old notion of the connection between the levite and the tithe. It must, however, be admitted that the levite appears here not as a sacred official but as a destitute person, that is, on the same level as the stranger, orphan, and widow.

A similar development in the Deuteronomic code may be recognized in connection with the law of the firstling (15:19–23). The je law code (Ex. 13:2, 12, 15; 22:29; 34:19) prescribes the allocation of the firstling "to the Lord," that is to the Sanctuary, as a sacrifice (cf. Ex. 13:15), while the Priestly code commands that it be given to the priest who offers the blood and the fat on the altar but keeps the meat for himself (Num. 18:17–18). The Deuteronomic code prescribes the eating of the firstling by its owner at the chosen place (15:19–23), but he is also warned not to violate the holiness of the firstling before bringing it to the chosen place (15:19). A gradual severance of the institution from the sanctum may be discerned here, similar to the development of the tithe.

One must say that the Deuteronomic type of tithe is unique and unprecedented. Whereas the tithe is always a tax or gift for the maintenance of a temple or its personnel, here it is simply a philanthropic gift. The question, of course, is what the sources for the maintenance of the central sanctuary were if tithe did not continue to fulfill its normal function. One wonders whether the law of tithe in Deuteronomy was not formulated in a utopian manner (like a few other Deuteronomic laws, cf., e.g., 15:7–11). In fact, even the tithe according to the Priestly Code seems to contain utopian features. The law (Num. 18) might fit well – as shown above – the period of the United Monarchy, but there is no evidence concerning the levites and their cities after this period, and it is quite possible that the priestly law was not implemented at all after the disruption of the monarchy. One has to keep in mind the fact that the Israelite law codes, like the Mesopotamian ones, were formulated in an idealistic way and therefore cannot be judged against a realistic and pure historical background.

Tithe at the Period of the Second Temple

At the beginning of the Second Temple period the tithe was considered indispensable for the maintenance of the Sanctuary and its personnel. Thus Malachi urges the people to bring "the whole tithe into the storehouse" that there may be food in the house of God (3:10), apparently for the priests. Nehemiah stands on guard so that the people give their tithe to the levites and do not neglect it (Neh. 10:38; 12:44; 13:10–13). As has already been indicated, the method of organizing the tithe in this period was not different from what is known about the organization of the tithe in Mesopotamia. Representatives of the Temple were in charge of collecting the tithes from the fields (Neh. 10:38b), and the tithes were stored in the storehouses of the Temple (Mal. 3:10; Neh. 10:39–40; 12:44; 13:5, 12–13; cf. ii Chron. 31:6ff.) under the supervision of priestly officials, who were in charge of their proper distribution (cf. Neh. 13:13). In contrast to the common view, there is no real contradiction between Nehemiah 10:38, which says that "the levites are collecting the tithe in all the cities," and Malachi 3:10; Nehemiah 12:44; 13:12, etc. which speak of the people bringing tithes to the storehouses. The latter statements mean that people made their contribution and not that the people brought the tithes with them in the literal sense of the word. According to the Mesopotamian practice, the temple authorities were responsible for the transportation of the tithe and there is no reason why the same practice should not have prevailed in Judah, especially when this is explicitly stated in Nehemiah 10:38. Moreover, this is supported by the rabbinic tradition, according to which the tithe was given to the levites (or rather to the priests, see below) on the threshing floor (Tosef., Pe'ah 4:3–6; Ket. 26a; tj, Ket. 2:7, 26d; cf. Jos., Ant., 20:181, etc.). On the other hand, it is possible that the petty farmers brought their tithes with them to Jerusalem.

Though the purpose of the tithe and its method of organization in the discussed period seem quite clear, serious problems from the religious-halakhic standpoint complicated the issue. From Ezra's time the whole pentateuchal literature was considered a total unity (the Law of Moses) and the people had to comply with the Torah as a whole. The various attitudes toward the tithe as reflected in the different sources and especially in the Priestly code, on the one hand, and the Deuteronomic code on the other, had to be combined and the contradictions to be harmonized. Thus for instance the two types of tithes prevalent at this period: "the first tithe" (maʿaser riʾshon) and "the second tithe" (maʿaser sheni) are the outcome of the contradiction between Numbers 18:21ff. and Deuteronomy 14:22ff. According to the priestly ordination, the tithe is to be given to the levite, whereas according to the Deuteronomic code, it is to be consumed by the owner at the central sanctuary. The rabbis, taking it for granted that both laws are of Mosaic origin and therefore equally binding, interpreted them as two different tributes: one to be given to the levite, "the first tithe"; and the other to be brought to Jerusalem and consumed there, "the second tithe." Theoretically, this was an excellent solution. However, from the practical point of view the implementation of these laws was almost impossible. The excise of 20% of the yield was too high, while a more serious problem was the destination of the tithe. There were very few levites in the Second Temple period – in contrast to the situation at the monarchical period – and so the tithe was automatically shifted to the priests. Because this does not comply with the Law, all kinds of explanations had to be provided in order to do away with this legal anomaly. A common explanation was that Ezra punished the levites because they did not go up from Babylon to Jerusalem and therefore allocated the tithe to the priests (Yev. 86b). There were other harmonistic solutions, for example, that the priests are also levites since they are also descended from the tribe of Levi. But for obvious economic reasons, very few people observed the laws of tithe properly, and the common people were suspected for not putting aside the sacred portion from their yield, so that a conscientious observer of the Law could not partake of it without first tithing it himself. This situation caused a lot of problems whose legal aspects are dealt with extensively in a special tractate called Demai.

For post-biblical aspects, see *Terumot and Ma'aserot.


W. Robertson-Smith, The Religion of the Semites (18942); Wellhausen, Proleg, 152ff.; O. Eissfeldt, Erstlinge und Zehnten… (1917); F. Horst, Privilegrecht Jahves (1930), 51–56 (= Gottes Recht… (1961), 73ff.); Pedersen, Israel, 3–4 (19472), 70, 307–13; Kaufmann Y., Toledot, 1 (1960), 147–59, 181–2; de Vaux, Anc Isr, 140–1, 380–2, 403–5; M. Weinfeld, in: Tarbiz, 31 (1961), 4–5; idem, in: jaos, 90 (1970), 202; M.A. Dandamaev, Vestnik Dreney Istorii (1965), 14–32; M. Haran, in: em, 5 (1968), 204–12.

[Moshe Weinfeld]


views updated May 29 2018



(Heb., maʿaser). Money or goods levied for the maintaining of sacral institutions. Several types of tithe are mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures. According to Numbers 18. 24, the ‘first tithe’ was given to the Levites after the ‘heave-offering’ (terumah) had been separated from it for the priest. The ‘second tithe’ (Leviticus 27. 30–1; Deuteronomy 14. 22–6) was a tenth part of the ‘first tithe’. The laws of tithes are compiled in the tractate Maʿaserot in the Mishnah.


In Europe a system of tithes came into legal force in the early Middle Ages (e.g. in England in 900), as a tax for the support of the Church and relief of the poor. The levy consisted of a tenth part, originally of the produce of lands (‘praedial’ tithes) and later of the profits of labour also (‘personal’ tithes). The system did not survive the secularization of continental European states after the Reformation.

For regulated giving in other religions, see ZAKĀT; DASWANDH.


views updated May 18 2018

tithe / tī[voicedth]/ • n. one tenth of annual produce or earnings, formerly taken as a tax for the support of the church and clergy. ∎  (in certain religious denominations) a tenth of an individual's income pledged to the church. ∎  [in sing.] archaic a tenth of a specified thing: he hadn't said a tithe of the prayers he knew.• v. [tr.] pay or give as a tithe: he tithes 10 percent of his income to the church. ∎ hist. subject to a tax of one tenth of income or produce.DERIVATIVES: tith·a·ble adj.ORIGIN: Old English tēotha (adjective in the ordinal sense ‘tenth,’ used in a specialized sense as a noun), tēothian (verb).


views updated May 18 2018

tithe. The payment, originally in kind, of a tenth of the produce of land was at first a voluntary religious duty for the benefit of the poor, pilgrims, and churches, but by the 10th cent. it was compulsory, replacing the old church-scot for the maintenance of the church and clergy, and enforceable with heavy penalties, perhaps the loss of nine-tenths of annual income and later even excommunication. When lords built private churches on their land, tithe, at first still payable to the original church, soon went to the lord's family with only a portion to the priest. Similarly in parishes appropriated to a monastery, tithe was paid to the monastery and after the dissolution to their lay successors. With the spread of protestant nonconformity in the 17th cent., the payment of tithe became extremely contentious, leading to innumerable lawsuits. Resentment of tithe was still a factor in the Swing riots of 1830 and the Rebecca riots in south Wales in 1842–3. By the Tithe Commutation Act (1836) all tithe was commuted to rent-charges. Acts of 1918 and 1925 led to full, compulsory redemption of rent charges, which through the 1936 Tithe Act were replaced by redemption annuities, the crown issuing redemption stock to tithe owners with final extinction after 60 years (1996). Capital loss to the church by this Act was c. £17.7 million. In Scotland, tithes were known as teinds.

Revd Dr William M. Marshall


views updated Jun 27 2018

tithe adj. (arch.) tenth OE.; sb. tenth part of annual produce paid to the Church XII; tenth part XVI. OE. tēoða, contr. of teogoða, ME. tiʒ(e)þe, tīþe; see TENTH.
Hence tithe vb. OE. tēoðian, teogoðian grant a tithe of. So tithing (-ING1) church tithe; company orig. of ten householders in the system of frankpledge. OE. (Angl.) tīġeðing; (WS.) tēoðung.


views updated Jun 08 2018


In Western ecclesiastical law, the act of paying a percentage of one's income to further religious purposes. One of the political subdivisions of England that was composed of ten families who held freehold estates.

Residents of a tithing were joined in a society and bound to the king to maintain peaceful relations with each other. The person responsible for the administration of the tithing was called the tithing-man; he was a forerunner of the constable.


views updated Jun 11 2018

tithe Tax of one-tenth of income levied to support a religious institution. Tithes were prescribed in the Old Testament and were a major source of Church income in medieval Europe. They were largely abandoned in the 19th century.


views updated May 17 2018

tithe one tenth of annual produce or earnings, formerly taken as a tax for the support of the Church and clergy. The practice derived from Jewish custom, as recorded in Jacob's vow at Bethel, Genesis 28:22.