Two Forms of Tithing

In recounting the mitzvos that existed prior to the giving of the Torah, the Rambam writes:1Yitzchak gave ma’aser , [Yitzchak tithed.]” But there is an explicit verse in Lech Lecha that states:2 “He [Avraham] gave him [Malki-Tzedek] ma’aser from everything.”

Why does the Rambam write that “Yitzchak gave ma’aser ,” implying as it does that Yitzchak was the first person about whom the Torah relates that he gave ma’aser ?3

This is because according to the Rambam, Avraham’s ma’aser applied specifically to the spoils of battle. Since we do not find that Avraham gave ma’aser at any other time, it follows that this ma’aser was similar to the “Dedication of a Portion of the Spoils”4 after the battle with Midian — a one-time commandment.5

The Rambam therefore states that “Yitzchak gave ma’aser,” inasmuch as Yitzchak was the first person who gave the type of ma’aser that is a mitzvah for all generations.6

And though “Avraham fulfilled the entire Torah prior to its being given,”7 nevertheless, the Rambam refers only to those mitzvos that the Torah actually mentions.

What indeed is the difference between the mitzvos mentioned regarding each of the Patriarchs, and those performed as part of their keeping “the entire Torah”?

The mitzvos that are specifically mentioned were performed by the Patriarchs as part of their unique manner of spiritual service. Thus, the services mentioned as being performed by Avraham relate to his attribute of love and kindness, while the services specifically mentioned as being performed by Yitzchak and Yaakov relate to their attributes of severity and mercy.8

The other mitzvos , however, were also performed by each Patriarch, for they were included within each Patriarch’s primary attribute. Thus Avraham, for example, performed the other mitzvos because severity and mercy are also encompassed within kindness.9

Yet another difference: Those mitzvos that are mentioned as being performed by a specific Patriarch served primarily as an empowerment to their descendants and to the mitzvos that we fulfill after the Torah was given.10

This is why the Rambam ascribes only circumcision and the morning prayer to Avraham, notwithstanding the fact that he performed all the mitzvos , for these mitzvos are presently still related to Avraham, inasmuch as he empowered us to perform them.

In light of the above, it is understood that the primary empowerment for the mitzvah of ma’aser is derived from Yitzchak and not from Avraham.

But since tithing is essentially a benevolent act, shouldn’t it be in the domain of Avraham (who represents the attribute of kindness) and not of Yitzchak (the attribute of severity)?

The underlying concept of ma’aser is that everything a Jew earns and possesses belongs to G‑d.11 A person must therefore first give away a tenth and only afterwards use the rest.

Although this is the general intent of ma’aser , we nevertheless find that ma’aser possesses two opposite qualities:

On the one hand, ma’aser can be given from any part of the whole, indicating that prior to the giving, the entire amount is wholly the giver’s. On the other hand, even prior to his tithing, a tenth has already been earmarked to be given away — the giver has no control over how much he will give.

Ma’aser thus not only emphasizes that everything belongs to G‑d, but also that His ownership extends even to that which seemingly belongs entirely to the person.

The above aspect of ma’aser has a special relationship to the service of Yitzchak, the service of fire and severity, which entails rising from below to above. For it was specifically Yitzchak’s manner of service that made it possible to take something on a lowly level and, while retaining its lowly properties, elevate it to a higher level.12

Ma’aser is therefore related to Yitzchak, for this manner of service is reflected in ma’aser , wherein man’s possessions, while still truly belonging to him, concurrently belong to G‑d.

Based on Likkutei Sichos, Vol. V, pp. 68-72.