The Truth about Tithes and First-fruits – the Jewish Practice of Tzedakah
Over the years, a lot of people get confused about the Bible’s teachings on tithes and first-fruits. Part of this is because, there are actually three different types of tithes – which is distinct and separate from the idea of first-fruits. With over 2300 verses on giving, it’s easy to get confused.
But to simply things, allow me to introduce you to the Jewish concept of Tzedakah: צדקה (pronounced, Tsa-da-KAH’). It primarily means, “righteousness;” but, it came to be known as the “jewish system of giving” — something we do in response to God’s free gift of righteousness.
The teachings of Tzedakah fall into four main categories. And here they are:
(1). FIRST FRUITS: (a.k.a Terumah, Wave offering Heave offering, or “Tribute”) First-fruits are completely separate from tithes (Nehem 12:44). They came from the 1st part of every harvest. (around 3-5 harvests a year – depending on crop). The rules were different for livestock (Ex.13:1ff). The 1st part of a ripening harvest (the Bikkurim) was almost always between 1/40th to 1/60th – (1.6 – 2.5% of total). Thus, any amount in this range was “acceptable.” However, those who gave the minimal amount (1.6%) were said to have an “evil eye” (greedy heart) vs. an “eye full of light” (2.5%) (see Mt. 6:22). Jews bound their Bikkurim; took it to the priest / pastor (Num 31:41); and would (a). Lift it high (a.k.a., wave it – Exod.25:2) (b). Place it into the hands of their priest: In doing this it would become “terumah” (blessed) and would bless the remainder of their harvest. They also believed that the anointing & blessing of that specific rabbi would come back to you through this (Ezek. 44:30). Hence, you wouldn’t bring it to a “questionable priest.” To eat your bikkurim before it became terumah was to curse your entire future harvest. In extreme rural settings (where no priest existed), it would go to a person’s father (the priest of the home). (See Deut. 18:1ff; Num.18:8ff). Jesus was our first-fruits “…when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” (John 12:32); “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” Luke 23:46 – a symbol of first-fruits to God, the Father.
(2). TITHES: The Three Types & Purposes
(A). The First Tithe: (Hebrew: “Ma-a-sair Rishon“) aka“Lords Tithe” This “first tithe” (Num.18:21) is the classic tithe most people hear about. It’s the first deduction after 1st fruits. It went to the local church for facilities, worship needs and Levites – the equivalent of church support staff (e.g., Nehem 10:37). 10% of this budget also went to priests (pastoral staff) called the terumat ma’aser – because first-fruits (2.5%) which already went directly to the priests, weren’t always enough (Num 18:26-28). (Terumat ma’aser (10% of 10%) = “base-pay” for priests – & 1st fruits (2.5%) = “tips”). After this was deducted, then came…
(B). The Self-Tithe: (Hebrew: “Ma-a-sair Sha-Nai”)
After the “1st Tithe” (aka., the Lords Tithe) God required his people to save an additional 10% for themselves – a “redeemed tithe” (Deut.14:24). This could be used for pilgrimage to Jerusalem; or, could be redeemed for “self-consumption” – an inheritance for posterity.
Now this is where things become interesting. Because, if you do the math, saving ten percent your entire life would naturally make you quite wealthy.
For example, if you went to your financial planner today & asked them: “If I saved 10% of my income for my entire adult life how much money would I have when I died?” Based on a median American salary and life-expectancy, they’d calculate a number somewhere between $3-5million! Think about that for a second: If we took a median American income (around $51,000 in 2016) and invested 10% our entire adult life… At 7% interest (which is rather low by 2021 standards) = you’d have 4.6mil by the time you turned 80 years old! So now, imagine if two generations did this? At 7% interest… that number would climb close to $270 million by the 3rd generation! Isn’t that incredible?
Even if you didn’t even add a single cent to it after that, the interest alone would generate close to 19 million a year! Even if 3 out of 5 generations fell-away from the Lord they’d still be wealthy, which is probably why God said: There needs to be a 3rd Tithe called…
Every 3rd year, Israelites were required to take the Self-Tithe & instead apply it to…
(C). The Poor-Man’s Tithe: (Heb: “MA’-a-SAIR- a-NAI’”)
I.e., Rather than “paying yourself” (saving for retirement / posterity), you’d give it to the poor, the alien, or the widow. (Deut 26:12). I.e, this was the social justice tithe, or “missions” tithe.
God didn’t want missions or outreach giving to hurt the Levites & local church financing (funded by the Lords Tithe). Thus, every 3rd & 6th year of the Sabbath cycle, Israelites “tithed” 20%, in addition to their 2.5% first-fruits (1/40th) of total income. (I.e., 12.5% on a normal year & 22.5% every third year). Israelites gave this through the Levites, so that social justice was always done alongside the Scriptures (Deut.14:28). I.e., God designed a system where his people solved the world’s problem, not a secular government. Because, ultimately, only God and his word can solve our world’s problems. Thus, he wanted poverty alleviation to ultimately come from institutions who were also committed to disseminating his law.
Yet, there were two other categories that fell under Tzedakah that are worth mentioning:
(3). OFFERINGS: These were gifts that went over and above the previous. See Votive Offerings (offerings done as a vow) Deut.12:11 or Alms. And finally,
(4). MARGIN: I.e., “Cushion” in your barns (bank-account); Eg., Prov. 21:20 “In the house of the wise are stores of choice food and oil, but a foolish man devours all he has.” I.e., God wanted “double margin” – the Self-tithe plus margin. Lev. 23:22 says: “‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the LORD your God.’” (See also Lev.19:9). Hence most Israelites/Jews lived on less than 75-85% of their total income as a continual lifestyle.
But the question remains, are Christians still obligated to obey this system? No. Not exactly.
Does God want his church to be fully funded? Yes. If you’re a Christian and you live in America, you are one of the wealthiest Christians who has ever walked the face of the earth in all of human history. So, to accept God’s free gift of eternal salvation and yet gripe about first-fruits would be a rather contradictory sign wouldn’t you think? (See Mt. 6:22ff). “Eyes of Light vs. Evil eyes” was a figure of speech that represented a “generous heart verses a stingy heart” (Mt. 6:22). The famous rabbi Hillel said that, if a person always gave God the bare-minimum in his first-fruits (1/60th), then he had an “Evil eye.” And Jesus said, in his famous sermon on the mount, that he agreed with Hillel’s philosophy of First fruits and generosity. To to paraphrase Jesus: “It’s hard to claim that you trust God with your eternal soul if you can’t even trust him with a small percentage of your income.” Ie., Jesus essentially taught that Tithes and offerings aren’t an obligation. But if you don’t do them, it’s an alarming symptom.
Thus, the Early Church Fathers (the disciples of the disciples) often taught that baby Christians should start with first-fruits, then tithing. And mature Christians should give their all. In the first 300 years of the church, tithing was considered a “starting point” of those with weak faith.
Many modern Christians advocate for a simplified version of Tzedakah called the 80-10-10 Plan: (a). Live on 80% of your income (b). Save 10% (c). Give 10% to the church. And once you get accustomed to this, ramp up your generosity as God blesses you!
And don’t misunderstand me: When I first started living generously… it was hard for me! I wasn’t accustomed to flexing my self-denial muscle. But when I saw what it did in me, and through me, I started getting radical. As I shared in my book, Pharisectomy, God once convicted me to empty out all of my savings and investments – to “give it all.” At the time it felt crazy — as my wife and three kids were living in a small house with a single bathroom. We had a rusty old minivan that desperately needed replacing. Yet, we felt like God wanted us to take all of the money we had been saving for a new house and car and sink it into his kingdom. And sure enough, within a short period of time, the blessings in my life started flowing like never before. Someone literally gave us the downpayment for a new house!
And please don’t misunderstand me: I am not advocating for some prosperity gospel. I don’t believe that God wants his people to be greedy or seek after money or blessings. But I do believe that God wants to provide “seed to the sower” (2 Cor. 9). But, to do this, he needs us to be “sowers.” Note: “he provides seed to the sower.”
So, I often tell people: As far as it pertains to “Making it into Heaven,” you don’t have to do ANYTHING aside from faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins! Your behavior does NOT affect God’s Love for You. He already loves you with an Everlasting Love! You can’t do ANYTHING to earn His love or gain access to heaven! Or to put it another way: Your belief determines WHERE you spend eternity. Your behavior determines HOW you spend eternity. The reason why Jews called this system “Tsedakah” (Righteousness) WASN’T because you did this to EARN righteousness. Rather, they did it as a RESPONSE to God’s FREE GIFT of Righteousness! It’s the least we could do!
Besides, it would naturally make you wealthy while keeping your motives pure! It keeps your Faith active. It guarantees God’s church will always be fully funded. And even more, it causes his followers to be the greatest source of social justice on planet earth!
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