Tithes, Temple and Torah

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This week’s Torah reading is Korach, Numbers 16:1 – 18:32.

The parsha for this week tells the story of Korah’s rebellion.


I would like to focus on two verses found near the end of the reading. In Numbers 18:25-26 we read: “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the Levites and say to them: When you receive the tithes from the Israelites, which I have assigned to you as your share, you shall set aside from them one-tenth of the tithe as a gift to the Lord.’”

All Israelites were obligated to donate one-tenth of their produce (or earnings) to the Levites in support of the Temple’s operations. The Levites were the only tribe not allotted a portion of the Land of Israel and relied on tithes for their support.

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One of my students at Shoresh Hebrew High School was surprised that the Levites were not exempt from giving 10 percent of what they received from the rest of the Israelites as donations. I suggested that this may be related to the traditional rabbinic dictum that when it comes to giving tzedakah, or charity, the poor are not exempt, and that it is a mitzvah to provide a beggar with sufficient funds so that he may, in turn, offer tzedakah to another.
In many ways, our congregations are the modern substitute for the Temple. Most synagogues have difficulty meeting their operating expenses through dues and fees. They usually need additional fundraising. Many are looking for better ways to ensure their financial stability. Among traditional synagogue dues systems, the most common form is a flat-rate or stepped dues system (with steps usually dependent on age or marital status). Some suggest that the traditional half-shekel donation is the proof-text for this practice: Everyone pays the same (Ex. 30:12-13).

On the other hand, the concept of tithing we read about this week has a modern corollary in the “fair share” dues systems which other congregations use, where a household’s dues relate to the household’s income. Yet many fair share congregations face financial challenges similar to flat-rate congregations. Some congregations have left the dues-based model entirely, and attempt to get by with purely voluntary gifts.


When I polled my students about the best way to fund congregations, they had a simple answer: Let’s follow the biblical command and give 10 percent to our Jewish institutions. Their desire may seem naïve, since they (largely) don’t pay many bills. In fact, some of them will soon be burdened with college loans — and they are quite aware of that fact.

But their evident engagement offers hope that they will help others even more than their parents have done, and that will include support of congregations.

For the last 75 years, large urban and suburban synagogues have formed the core of American Jewish life. This may be coming to an end with the emergence of smaller, more intimate groups of like-minded Jews, who strive for a greater sense of community, without the trappings a synagogue entails.

Those of us who believe that a congregation is more than a venue for the provision of a la carte services, but rather a kehila kadosha, meaning a holy assembly, need to restore within our shuls the sense of community which the next generation seeks. That spirit is essential to the continuation of Jewish life.

Questions for discussion

1. Is tithing of one’s annual income realistic? What is a reasonable percentage? Should non-Jewish charities be part of this responsibility?

2. What Jewish institutions are among your family’s priorities for tzedakah?

Gary D. Simms is a faculty member of Shoresh Hebrew High School, and a former executive director of Reform, Orthodox, and Conservative synagogues in the Washington area.

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