Tithes for the Poor and Vulnerable

Timothy Isaiah Cho
2 min readMar 6, 2023

In the Torah, God instructs his people to a life of generosity with three major tithes in the seven-year agricultural cycle.

The first tithe (ma’aser rishon) required one tenth of agricultural produce to be given to the Levites every year after the giving of an offering (see Numbers 18:21–26).

The second tithe (ma’aser sheni) required one tenth of specific agricultural produce to be set aside during the first, second, fourth, and fifth years of each seven-year cycle. This was distinct from the one tenth from the first tithe. Those giving this second tithe would pilgrimage to Jerusalem and eat it there in God’s presence (see Deuteronomy 14:22–27).

The third tithe (ma’aser ani), also known as the “poor tithe,” required that one tenth of specific agricultural produce to be set aside during the third and sixth years of each seven-year cycle. This is the distinct from the one tenth of the first tithe and is virtually the same as the second tithe, but instead of being eaten by the tither, the tithe was given specifically for foreigners, the fatherless, orphans, and widows (see Deuteronomy 14:28–29). Many of the early rabbis believed that the instruction to give the tithes to the Levites in Deuteronomy 14:28–29 is referring to the first tithe, so that this third tithe is specifically reserved for the poor and vulnerable in Israel.

On the seventh year of the seven-year cycle (shmita), the land would be given a sabbath of rest (see Leviticus 25). Then, the seven-year cycle would begin again.

There’s a lot to unpack here, but what is fairly clear is how God built a pattern and habit of generosity in the cycle of annual living for his people. The third tithe is a calendared opportunity for generosity for the destitute that works hand in hand with the other requirements to provide for the poor (e.g. gleaning laws). In the eyes of God, the community of his people was only as healthy as the least fortunate. The wealth of a small percentage at the top meant nothing to God if the poorest didn’t have bread to eat.

Should this principle be applied to broader society and economics? I’m not sure. However, it should at least be applied to life in the church, which is what Old Testament Israel pre-figured before the coming of Jesus. The church should be the place where we are “one in heart and soul” so that “no one claim[s] that any of his possessions [is] his own, but they share[] everything they own[]” (Acts 2:32). It is safe to say that the early church recognized that this principle of a pattern and habit of generosity from the Torah was supposed to shape the followers of Christ.