The Surprising Origins of Ma'aser
Where Does Tithing Come From In The Bible?
The children of Israel are on the cusp of entering the land. And once this happens, Moses tells them, they'll have to keep a bunch of new laws - including the law of ma’aser, tithing, and the law of vidui ma’aser, the declaration of ma’aser. But why isn’t it enough to give ma’aser - why does it come with this dramatic statement? Why the spectacle?
There happens to be a story involving ma’aser, a story from much earlier in the Torah. A new look at this story may actually show us the roots of ma'aser, and explain why we make this grand speech.
Hi, this is Rivky Stern, and you’re watching Aleph Beta. Welcome to Parshat Ki Tavo.
Moses opens this parsha by telling the children of Israel about some of the new laws they will have to keep:
כִּי-תָבוֹא אֶל-הָאָרֶץ - when you enter the land
אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, נֹתֵן לְךָ נַחֲלָה, that God gave you as an inheritance
וִירִשְׁתָּהּ, and you possess it,
וְיָשַׁבְתָּ בָּהּ, and you dwell there
Once this happens, Moses tells us, you’ll have a whole bunch of things you’ll need to do - and one of those is the law of ma’aser, tithing, which is when we separate out some of what we’ve grown in the past year, and give some to the Levi, some to the needy, or we bring it to Jerusalem and eat it ourselves.
Now, we heard about the basic law of tithing earlier in the Torah, but here in Ki Tavo, we hear about a related mitzvah: vidui ma’aser, the declaration of ma’aser. And it’s kind of a strange mitzvah. See, not only do you separate out your tithes every year, there’s also this big ritual at the end of every third year, where you kind of take an inventory and make sure that you’ve been doing it right. It’s almost like a self-audit: you look back at your books and confirm, “Yep, I separated out what I was supposed to.” And it’s not enough to just do the self-audit -- you have to stand up before God and literally say: I did it! I took the ma’aser out of my house! I’ve given it to the needy, I brought it to Jerusalem!
I have not transgressed your commandments, and I haven’t forgotten
I listened to your voice, God; I did everything you commanded.
And… I have to tell you, this grand speech really had me stumped. On top of the mitzvah of ma’aser, there’s this announcement to God - “Hey, just letting you know, I gave ma’aser, just like you asked.” Why isn’t it enough to give ma’aser - why does it come with this dramatic statement? Just imagine it with other mitzvot: The Torah tells me not to do any work on Shabbat… so when Shabbat comes in, I stop my kitchen renovation. Do I also have to make a big speech about it??: "Hey God, just wanted to let you know, I put away my tools, just for you, I’m doing the mitzvah of keeping Shabbat!" Or, every time I eat something kosher - “Hey, God, just a heads up, I just ate a kosher ice cream cone. Following your commands!” I mean, it seems a little crazy, right? Why the spectacle?
Here’s the thing. There happens to be a story involving ma’aser, a story from much earlier in the Torah — about one of our forefathers, Jacob, who made a vow to give ma’aser to God. I think if we read the story, it may actually help to explain why it’s sooo important that we make this grand speech, to declare that we’ve done the mitzvah of ma’aser. So let’s look at that story — and then we’ll come back and hopefully see the law in a new light.
The story begins in Genesis 28. Jacob has just taken the blessings that were meant for his brother Esav, and Esav is in a murderous rage. So Jacob is forced to run away. And, the first night, when Jacob stops to rest, God comes to him in a dream and promises to take care of him. When Jacob wakes up, he turns to God and says, “God, if you really do these things for me:
יִהְיֶה אֱלֹהִים עִמָּדִי
If [You] will be with me.
וּשְׁמָרַנִי בַּדֶּרֶךְ הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ
And if You’ll watch over me as I go on my way
וְשַׁבְתִּי בְשָׁלוֹם, אֶל-בֵּית אָבִי
And if I return, in peace, to my father’s home
Then, God, I’m going to do something for you — and here’s where we get to ma’aser, tithing:
וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר תִּתֶּן-לִי
Everything you give to me
עַשֵּׂר אֲעַשְּׂרֶנּוּ לָךְ
I will separate a tithe for you
So what is Jacob saying here? Where is this offer of maaser coming from? It sounds like Jacob is saying, God - I know that staying in my father’s house isn’t an option right now. But I’m heading into the unknown here, and I’m scared. So please, God, take care of me as I head out, and please, please, return me in peace to my family. Then I’ll give you that ma’aser, deal?
So there we have it. Hundreds of years before God tells us the laws of ma’aser, Jacob, on his own, volunteers to give ma’aser to God! Interesting.
But there’s something odd about Jacob’s promise. Jacob says he’s gonna give ma’aser... but does he ever actually give it?
Well… that’s the funny thing. The Torah never tells us that he does. Now, maybe the Torah just skips it. After all, the Torah doesn’t record every single thing that ever happened. But...let’s not assume anything. Let’s think it through. Jacob said he’d give ma’aser only when all of these conditions were met. If God was with him, if God guarded him, and if he returned in peace to his father’s house. So...were those conditions met? Did everything that Jacob asked for actually come true?
Let’s go through the list.
יִהְיֶה אֱלֹהִים עִמָּדִי
If [You], God will be with me.
וּשְׁמָרַנִי בַּדֶּרֶךְ הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ
And if You’ll watch over me as I go on my way
Was God with Jacob during those years Jacob was away from home? Did God protect Jacob? Well, Jacob himself says so, years later:
God has been with me
בַּדֶּרֶךְ אֲשֶׁר הָלָכְתִּי
On the path that I’ve walked (Genesis 35:3)
It’s the same language. So it sounds like a resounding yes.
But what about Jacob’s third request: וְשַׁבְתִּי בְשָׁלוֹם, אֶל-בֵּית אָבִי - And I will return, in peace, to my father’s home. Does that happen? Well, Jacob does return to his father’s house… It happens roughly two decades later, when Jacob leaves Lavan with all of his wives, his kids, his wealth, and he returns to the land of Israel, back to his childhood home.
So can we check that off? Did he return in peace to his father’s home? I don’t think so. Because, let me ask you. What was Jacob’s home life like? Was it happy? Wives all best friends? Kids all love each other? In other words, was everything… at peace? Was it b’shalom?
It wasn’t even close. There was tension between Jacob’s wives. There was tension between Jacob’s kids. Jacob played favorites with his son Joseph, and his other sons grew to hate Joseph for it. And that hatred got stronger and stronger, until, eventually, it culminated in the Sale of Joseph. And that story concludes with the entire family leaving the house of Jacob’s father, and descending to Egypt. That doesn’t sound very peaceful to me.
And that awful dynamic between Jacob’s sons - you wanna hear how the text actually describes it?
וַיִּרְאוּ אֶחָיו, כִּי-אֹתוֹ אָהַב אֲבִיהֶם מִכָּל-אֶחָיו
And the brothers saw that Jacob, their father, loved Joseph more than the other brothers.
And they hated him.
;וְלֹא יָכְלוּ, דַּבְּרוֹ לְשָׁלֹם
And they weren’t able to speak to him in peace.
They couldn’t speak to him in peace. All Jacob wanted, the last thing he needed to check off his list, before bringing that ma’aser, was peace in his family’s home. But it never happened. There was sinah, hatred, and therefore no shalom.
So maybe Jacob never brought that ma’aser. Because, for his entire life, he was still waiting to check off the full list. He was waiting for there to be shalom. And by the time Jacob nears death, far from his father’s home once again, maybe the sad truth has become clear to him. His promise...will never be complete, because he will never end up, b’shalom, back in his father’s homeland.
But...what about Jacob’s descendants? Would it ever come true for them? Would there ever be a time when the family of Jacob would return in peace to this land?
I think so. Hundreds of years after Jacob yearned for that peaceful return to his father’s land, finally, the children of Jacob would live to see that day. And that is what Parshat Ki Tavo is talking about. Look back at the words that Moses opens this parsha with, that we quoted at the beginning of this video. Moses tells the nation that the law of ma’aser will go into effect:
When you enter the land,
אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, נֹתֵן לְךָ נַחֲלָה
that God, your God, gives you as an inheritance,
But not just when you enter the land:
and you possess it,
and you settle there.
When you possess it and settle - that means that we’ve driven out our enemies. Why is that important? Why wouldn’t these laws of ma’aser go into effect as soon as we enter the land? Why is it only once we’ve driven out our enemies and started to put down roots?
Because that’s when the terms of Jacob’s promise will be fulfilled. That’s when Jacob’s family will finally be returned to his father’s house and be at peace, fulfilling the terms of וְשַׁבְתִּי בְשָׁלוֹם, אֶל-בֵּית אָבִי.
And there’s even a little hint right here in the last phrase - וְיָשַׁבְתָּ בָּהּ , and you settle there. Doesn’t וְיָשַׁבְתָּ sound like וְשַׁבְתִּי - I will return to my father’s house? This same word - יָשַׁבְתָּ, settle, שַׁבְתִּי, return - it’s like the Torah is saying, with a wink and a nod, you know when you will bring this ma’aser? When the terms of Jacob’s vow are finally fulfilled. When you return to the land of Jacob’s forefathers, to settle there, in peace. Only then will you finally be able to make good on Jacob’s promise.
So now, we understand the Jacob connection - how the ma’aser we bring, when we finally return to Israel with peace, in some way, seems to be based on Jacob’s ma’aser, hundreds of years earlier. And I think we might have an answer to our original question too: why we make this whole, dramatic ma’aser declaration. Or at least, I have a theory.
I’ll explain it by way of analogy. Let’s say, 200 years ago, your great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother needed $1000, and she borrowed it from her neighbor. She had every intention of paying it back right away, slip it under the door, “thanks for the money, much appreciated.” But you know, life gets away from you. Let’s say she wasn’t able to return the money in a week, a year, even in her entire lifetime.
And over the generations, the debt continues to not be paid back for one reason or another. Either you didn’t have the money, you couldn’t find the neighbor’s kids, or grandkids, but the idea has stayed in the family - “One day, when you can finally do it, you'll give it back. You can make good on great-great-great-great-great-great Grandma’s promise.”
And now, it’s 200 years later. By sheer luck, you end up living down the block from the descendents of the original lenders. You have the money in hand. Do you just go up and say, "Here ya go," and then walk away? No - of course not. There's so much history there, so much behind that little check. It’s your responsibility to show your neighbor, to show your family, your great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother - that you haven't forgotten, despite all the years. That merits a statement. So maybe you call the local paper, stage a mini- press conference. Maybe you host a party for both of your families. But you do something. You show your neighbor - this is big. We’re finally doing this. You’ve never forgotten, and neither have we.
And I think that’s what’s going on with ma’aser. Most mitzvot don’t need this kind of pomp and circumstance. But ma’aser is different. It’s a mitzvah from God, yes, but with a rich history, going back hundreds of years, all the way to Jacob. Jacob had made a promise, but he couldn’t fulfill it, nor could so many generations that followed. And that promise could have been lost in the sands of time, a debt forever unpaid. but it wasn’t. And hundreds of years later, when we would enter the land, we would finally be able to bring Jacob’s ma’aser. And when we did — well, it would require more than a mere handoff, more than saying “Here ya go” and walking away. It would need a grand speech — because it’s a grand act. We haven’t transgressed your commands, God — and we haven’t forgotten.
I’m not the first person to suggest that the mitzvah of ma’aser originates with Jacob’s vow. Rabbi Fohrman has a Premium series where he first proposed this idea, and he lays out some really mind-blowing evidence. I definitely encourage you to check it out. Link in the description.
And there’s one more cool thing that I’d like to share with you. Right before the mitzvah of vidui ma’aser are the laws of bikkurim - and I think bikkurim is also linked, in fascinating ways, to Jacob and his promise. So I had a conversation with Beth Lesch about it. Take a listen to the audio epilogue and let us know what you think.