The term “tithe” (Heb. “maaser”)—meaning, the one tenth part of something given to charity—appears often in the Torah, and perhaps in your synagogue’s latest appeal and in your rabbi’s sermons in one form or another. But how does tithing work? What is the history of tithing? And when are you obligated to tithe?

In fact, as we will see, tithing encompasses a number of different practices with varying levels of obligation.

The Patriarchs

The practice of tithing first appears in the Torah, not as a commandment, but as a practice done by the patriarchs. After Abraham’s military victory over the four kings who attacked Sodom, he gave a tenth of the spoils to “Malkitzedek . . . priest of G‑d.”1 The Midrash also states that Yitzchak tithed his produce.2

Similarly, while fleeing to his uncle Laban from his brother Eisau, Jacob prayed: “If G‑d will be with me . . . and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and I return in peace to my father’s house, then . . . from all that you shall give me I will give a tenth to you.”3

Maaser Rishon: The First Tithe

The practice of tithing appears again later on in the Torah, after the incident of Korach’s rebellion, when the institution of priesthood was questioned by the rebels. There, G‑d commands Aharon the Priest concerning the giving of terumah (the farmer’s contribution to the kohanim, the priests, from crops grown in the Land of Israel), and Moshe regarding giving a tenth of the remaining produce to the Levites. This tenth is called maaser rishon—the “first maaser.” As the verse says, “To the children of Levi, behold I have given all the tithes in Israel as an inheritance, in return for the service which they perform, the service of the Tent of Meeting.”4

The Levite would then have to separate maaser from the maaser, i.e., a tenth of that which he received, which is called terumat maaser,5 and give it to a kohen. As the tribe of Levi did not receive a portion in the Land of Israel, these harvests would support them as they worked in the Tabernacle or in the Holy Temple.

Maaser Sheni: The Second Tithe

The “second masser,” maaser sheni, was a second tithe taken from the produce remaining after both terumah and maaser rishon were taken. This second maaser was taken to Jerusalem where it was eaten by the owner and his family while in a state of ritual purity.

If one was unable to bring the produce to Jerusalem immediately, it was possible to “redeem” it by bringing an equivalent sum of money to Jerusalem and spending it there on food and drink, provided that what was purchased was consumed in a state of ritual purity.6

Maaser Ani: Tithes for the Poor

In the third and sixth year of the seven-year Shemittah (Sabbatical) cycle, maaser ani, the maaser for the poor, was given instead of maaser sheni. In addition, following the third and sixth years, on Passover of the fourth and seventh years, a process called “biur maasrot”—removal of the tithes—would take place. All tithes that had not been distributed, eaten or redeemed in the previous three years were dealt with then. If even then they were not given, eaten or redeemed, the tithes had to be burned or otherwise disposed of to the degree that it cannot be used in any way.7

At the end of every third year you shall bring out the tithe of your produce of that year and store it up within your gates. And the Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance with you, and the stranger and the fatherless and the widow who are within your gates, may come and eat and be satisfied, that the Lord your G‑d may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do.8

In the seventh year of the Shemittah cycle, when all fields are declared ownerless for the year, no terumah or maaser were given.9

Produce that needs to have terumah and maaser taken from it is known as tevel, and it is forbidden to eat10 or sell it11until tithes is taken.

Contemporary Application

As with all mitzvahs associated with agriculture, one is required to take maaser only in the Land of Israel.12 The Talmud records a dispute among various sages as to whether or not terumah and maaser are of biblical or rabbinic origin since the Babylonian exile.13 Some held that the biblical requirement only applied during a period when the entire Jewish nation had settled in the Land of Israel. Since only a portion of the nation returned to Israel after the Babylonian exile, the biblical requirement no longer applied, and maaser was instituted only as a rabbinic enactment.

However, others held that the sanctity of the land was dependent on the habitation by the nation only during what is known as the first commonwealth. Once the people were exiled, the land’s sanctity was lost. After the return from Babylon, since the second commonwealth, the sanctity of the land returned, but it was no longer dependent on the nation living there, and therefore maaser is a biblical requirement regardless of the Jewish people’s settlement of the land.

The consensus among later rabbinic authorities is that while the sanctity of the Land of Israel is no longer dependent on how many Jews live there, the mitzvahs associated with the land are biblically required only if the entire nation dwells there.14

The verses state that one must tithe “grain, wine, and oil.” Therefore, some consider the biblical mitzvah to apply only to grain, grapes and olives.15 However, others maintain that the mitzvah extends to all fruits.16 All agree that the requirement to tithe vegetables is only rabbinic.

Another distinction between grain, fruits and vegetables is the time of the tithing. Because crops must be tithed on a yearly basis, a time limit was set, and all crops harvested past that date were tithed separately. The date for grain and vegetables is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and the date for fruit is the fifteenth of Shevat, also known as Tu B’Shvat.17

While a non-Levite is permitted to eat maaser rishon once it has been separated and the produce is no longer tevel , there is a debate among recent and contemporary halachic authorities whether maaser is given to a Levite nowadays. According to most, because of the distinction between the acts of separating maaser and giving it, as well as the fact that it is impossible to confirm the lineage of today’s Levites, one is not obligated to give the separated maaser to a Levite, and it can be eaten by a non-Levite as long as it is symbolically designated as maaser.18 However, some maintain that there remains an obligation to give maaser to a Levite, regardless of whether his or her lineage is confirmed.19

There is still an obligation to separate maaser sheni today, but since the destruction of the Temple, it is not eaten in Jerusalem. One is permitted to redeem it for less than its value on a small coin and then discard the coin. The produce can then be eaten as usual.

The procedure20 of separating terumah and maasrot are usually done by the farmers under rabbinical supervision, so look out for a certification when you’re buying Israeli produce. It’s one of the quirky things about Israel that it’s precisely the fruits and vegetables that need to be certified as kosher.

Maaser Kesafim: Tithing From Profits

While produce grown outside the Land of Israel does not need to have maaser taken from it, the practice of tithing still applies to monetary profits. This is called maaser kesafim, the source and nature of which is a matter of debate.

Sources for Tithing From Profits

The first mention of maaser kesafim appears in the stories of Abraham and Jacob, mentioned above. Since we do not, as a rule, consider the practices of the patriarchs to be obligatory as mitzvahs, because they were not commanded to the entire nation by Moshe, there is much discussion about the nature of maaser kesafim. While a minority of opinions consider it a biblical mitzvah, most see it as either a rabbinic enactment derived from the mitzvah of tithing crops,21 or as merely a custom paralleling maaser rishon or maaser ani.

Others see maaser kesafim as part of the general mitzvah of tzedakah, or charity.22 Maimonides writes that the most desirable way of performing the mitzvah of charity is to give a fifth of one’s financial resources.23 Giving one-tenth is an ordinary measure; giving less reflects stinginess.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi rules that giving a tenth one’s earnings to charity is a rabbinic obligation.24

It must be noted that even a custom, when performed three times, becomes obligatory under the category of a neder, a vow (unless one has in mind that the act is done bli neder,” without a vow).25 There are those who point out that since most people do not need to separate maaser from produce, everyone should tithe their earnings.26

As for those who rely on others for charity, the differing views as to the origin of maaser kesafim will determine whether or not they are obligated to tithe their income.27 According to all opinions, however, everyone must give at least a small portion of money to tzedakah.28

Uses and Obligations

Maaser must be taken from all monetary earnings, findings, gifts29 and inheritances, from the profits remaining once business expenses and taxes have been paid.30

The money should be donated31 to the poor, just as masser ani is. Unless one has established a precedent only to give their maaser to the poor, it may also be donated to support Torah study, synagogues, or any other cause that may be considered a mitzvah since maaser kesafim is not a biblical requirement according to most opinions. It may not be used to fulfill mitzvahs that one is already obligated in, such as buying a mezuzah. Some say that one may even use maaser towards tuition for a Torah education for one’s children.32 However, a number of factors must be taken into account, such as one’s financial situation and the age of the children, so it would be best to contact your rabbi for guidance.


Regarding maaser the Gemara states: "עשר תעשר – עשר בשביל שתתעשר"—“give in order to become wealthy.”33 The Gemara adds that while it is generally forbidden to test G‑d, in the case of maaser it is allowed, as it says, “‘Bring the full tithes into the storehouses . . . and try me now herewith,’ says the L‑rd of hosts, ‘if I will not open you the windows of Heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall be more than sufficiency.’”3435

Whether you’re a farmer in Israel, a banker in New York, or you just won the lottery in Timbuktu, the mitzvah of separating maaser will apply to you in a particular way. If you’re living in or visiting Israel, make sure the fruits and vegetables you buy are certified as having had maaser taken. When you are doing your taxes, look over your yearly profit and set aside a tenth for the charity of your choice. And if you just received a check for your bar mitzvah, remember to find a charity or community cause to which you will give your tithe. And remember, it’s only an investment.