Did everyone tithe in Israel? Merchants/fisherman/blacksmiths etc.?

When did the tithing come into the church?

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    Christians disagree over whether "tithe" is an appropriate term to use for Christian churches. Please edit this to ask for a specific perspective whose answers you would like.
    – curiousdannii
    Oct 11, 2018 at 2:31
  • 2
    These are really two different questions. Oct 11, 2018 at 15:49
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    You will find an answer to "When did tithing come into the church?" at this question: christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/4329/… Oct 11, 2018 at 16:36
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    The first mention of a tithe is not in Israel. Abraham gave a tenth to Melchizedek, over 400 years before Israel went out of Egypt, Genesis 14:20. And Melchizedek is, quite evidently, representative of Christ (Hebrews 7:2).
    – Nigel J
    Oct 11, 2018 at 23:10
  • What era? Are you trying to figure out how religiously observant Israelites were, or how tithing obligations were understood by the religiously observant? Oct 12, 2018 at 15:33

1 Answer 1


The Tithe System in the Ancient World

Through much of history tithing has meant the right of a person, or institution, to a proportion of the crops grown, or livestock reared, on land owned or tenanted by someone else. This right implies a corresponding obligation on the occupier of the land to remit it. The economist Adam Smith, in his Wealth of Nations (Book 4 Chapter 9) says:

The sovereigns of China, of ancient Egypt, and of the different kingdoms into which Indostan has, at different times, been divided, have always derived the whole, or by far the most considerable part, of their revenue, from some sort of land tax or land rent. This land tax, or land rent, like the tithe in Europe, consisted in a certain proportion, a fifth, it is said, of the produce of the land, which was either delivered in kind, or paid in money, according to a certain valuation, and which, therefore, varied from year to year, according to all the variations of the produce.

The tithe system is not the only form of payment which may be due from the occupier of land. Unlike a rental system, where the occupier pays a fixed amount (rent) and retains whatever is left; or a management system where the occupier retains a fixed amount (wage) and remits whatever is left; the tithe system allows the occupier to retain a set proportion, 90%, of whatever is produced. Tithe specifically means a tenth.

Tithing in Egypt

In Genesis 47 we read that Joseph had acquired all the land in Egypt for Pharaoh, with the exception of some priestly land, and that Joseph had established a law in Egypt that a fifth of the produce of the land of Egypt belonged to Pharaoh. This law was still in existence at the time of Moses.

Tithing in Israel

In the case of the Mosaic Law, for Israel , Leviticus 27 v30 and v32 define tithes as applying to the grain of the soil, the fruit of the trees and the animals of the herd and flock. It says these tenths will belong to the Lord. In Numbers 18 God gives His share to the Levites, in recognition of the fact they have no land of their own, and because of the work they will do.

This tithe is known in Judaism as the ma'aser rishon or first tithe.

In Deuteronomy 14 mention is made of two further tithes: ma'aser sheni and ma'aser ani. Ma'aser sheni was to be taken to Jerusalem and consumed there by the landholder and his family, and ma'aser ani was to be given to the local poor. A common understanding was that ma'aser sheni applied to the first, second, fourth and fifth years of the sabbatical cycle; and ma'aser ani to the third and sixth. (See Tobit 1 6-8).

All the tithes applied to produce of the land, or animals, and to the finished goods (e.g.. wine rather than grapes, olive oil rather than olives). We may think of the farmer "giving" a portion of his "income" to God; but they saw it differently, the farmer was separating God's share from his own share of their joint produce. God supplied the rains for the crops and the grass for the livestock (Deuteronomy 11 v14).

For this reason, the merchant, fisherman or blacksmith (if he did not also grow food) had no part to play in the tithing system of Israel. Such tradesmen did not present tithes.

Tithing as ten per cent of income generally in Israel

Abraham paid 10% to Melchizedek and Jacob promised 10% to God if He brought him safely back to his father's house. Many modern Jews (who cannot now pay the Mosaic tithes) give 10% of their income as Tzedakah, broadly speaking that is for charitable purposes, and this voluntary tithe is known as ma'aser kesafim. In Luke 18 12, in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, the pharisee boasts of giving a tenth of all he acquires. This pharisee is boasting of doing more than the law requires (as tithing applies only to some products, not all income), and we can deduce from this that the practice of tithing one's income was known at the time of Christ, but also that it was not the common practice for the ordinary Jew, or else why would the pharisee boast?

Tithing in the Church

Tithing of various agricultural products, for the benefit of the Church , sometimes wider than in Israel, such as including timber, wool and fish, was introduced to most of Western Europe in the latter half of the first millennium. They were enjoined by sixth century Councils in France (Tours and Macon) and later by the Emperor Charlemagne in France and Kings Offa and Aethewulf in England.

During the Middle Ages tithes were frequently not payable to the actual parish priest, but to the Rector of the Parish who might only be an acolyte. It would then be his responsibility, which he might or might not fulfil, to employ a priest to serve the parish. The difference between the tithe income, and what he paid the priest, would be the acolytes own and might be well used to fund his education enabling him to eventually take over, or might be spent in other ways. Strictness varied. Tithes might also be appropriated to monasteries or bishops. A relatively rich parish (large with good soil) might have to pay different proportions of the tithe to different people, or else the tithe on grain might go elsewhere than the tithe on wool. Tithing rights could also be sold, a rich layman might donate land to a monastery in return for his descendants having the right to the tithe income from certain parishes. Reforms were from time to time attempted and implemented.

By the nineteenth century most tithes had been commuted to a fixed monetary payment, payable annually to the Church, no longer having any relation to the price of corn or anything else. In urban areas the tithe charge originally payable in respect of the land, was often apportioned between the houses built on it. Some parishes, at Enclosure, were freed from tithes generally in return for the Church being granted some of the enclosed land. In England tithe charges were abolished in 1936, replaced with annuities expiring in 1976.

Church taxes are still collected in some European countries although people can opt out, sometimes only by declaring themselves non-members. These include Germany and Sweden. The rate is not as high as 10%.

Tithing 10% of Income to the Church

The modern practice whereby some Churches expect, ask or require, with varying degrees of insistence, that members contribute 10% of their income to Church funds was popularised in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Alexander Hogshead and AW Miller both published books advocating tithing in 1873. Most influential though was Thomas Kane, a Chicago businessman and a Presbyterian layman. He wrote a pamphlet in 1876 and circulated copies to most of the Protestant Churches in the United States, something he did habitually for many years. This led to the popularisation of stewardship and tithing campaigns. He argued that 10% of money, and one-seventh of time, were eternal minimums to give to God, and the tithe was for the spread and ministry of the Gospel.

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    Excellent answer, although I would love to see some references, especial for the section "Tithing in Israel". Oct 16, 2018 at 14:05

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