Q.Is there still an obligation to tithe, as described in the Bible? How do we fulfill this obligation today?
A. Actually there is widespread misunderstanding of the Biblical tithing obligation. The Torah does not actually command a general tithe of agricultural produce for the poor. The "first tithe" described in the Torah actually goes not to the poor, but to the tribe of the Levites.
This tithe is a fascinating example of the anti-aristocratic element present from the very beginning of Jewish history. To the best of my knowledge, the institution of hereditary landed gentry was present in virtually every civilized land until only a few generations ago, yet was found in not a single organized Jewish community since antiquity. Indeed, an intensely debated program for so-called Jewish "improvement" at the beginning of the 19th century counted among Jewish "failings" the following: "No class distinctions". (1)
Instead of an aristocracy -- a dominant, landed class that collects taxes from subservient tenants or serfs based on their ownership of land, the Torah presents the tribe of Levi as a model anti-aristocracy, a class of itinerant scholars who collect taxes from free citizens based on their own lack of ownership of land. "Don't abandon the Levite in your gates, for he has no portion and inheritance among you" (Deuteronomy 14:27).
More precisely, their inheritance is spiritual, not material: "Therefore, Levi has no portion and inheritance with his brothers; the Lord is his inheritance, as the Lord your God spoke to him" (Deuteronomy 10:9). The first tithe, which is given to the tribe of Levi, is meant to free them and compensate them for devotion to God's work: "And to the children of Levi I have given the tithe in Israel as a portion, in return for the service they serve, the service of the Tent of Meeting" (Numbers 18:21). As Maimonides explains, the service in the Tabernacle is only an example; the Levites are meant to devote themselves to learning and teaching Torah.
Thus, the first tithe was designed to advance enlightenment, not domination.
The second tithe also was not devoted solely to the poor. The agricultural cycle in the land of Israel is seven years in duration. In the seventh, or Sabbatical year, all produce is freely available to all. In the third and sixth years, there is a second tithe given to the poor. In the remaining four years, the farmer himself takes the second tithe, or its value, and consumes it in Jerusalem together with his family, taking due care to share it also with the less fortunate.
The second tithe is not collected and redistributed by some central authority; rather, it is distributed by the farmer individually. In the first, second, fourth and fifth years he has to actually meet and endow the poor; in the third and sixth year he is expected to actually invite them to join him in his good fortune. "And the Levite, who has no portion and inheritance with you, will come; and the stranger, and the orphan and the widow in your gates; and they will eat and be satisfied, so that the Lord your God will bless you in everything you do" (Deuteronomy 14:29).
Thus this tithe was meant not only to support the poor but also to advance social solidarity by creating a meaningful interface and interaction between haves and have-nots.
The Biblical tithing obligation applies only to agricultural produce in the land of Israel. But for hundreds of years it has been customary to donate a portion of our income to charity, and the most accepted amount is one tenth of after-tax income. The Shulchan Arukh (authoritative Code of Jewish law) states that the average person should give one-tenth of his income to charity, and that anything less is considered stingy. (3)
This custom retains the spirit of the original agricultural tithe. The personal element is maintained, as this tithe is distributed according to individual discretion and is in addition to regular taxes, including communal levies, which are administered by the community as a whole. (4)
Likewise, the custom keeps the focus on enlightenment. While the main recipients of charity funds are the poor, a Midrash states that the foremost recipient of tithes should be "Those who labor in the Torah," (5) and Torah scholars and Torah education are given a high priority. And when giving to the poor, the highest level of charity is that given to enable a person to earn an independent living. (6)
We see that the original tithing obligation of the Torah, and its modern-day equivalent, are far more than a simple "poor tax"; they are a tool not only to fight poverty, but also to increase enlightenment, equality, and social solidarity.
SOURCES: (1) See Amos Elon, The Pity of It All, pg. 114 (2) Maimonides Code, Laws of Shemitta 13:12 (3) Shulchan Arukh Yoreh Deah 249:1 (4) Turei Zahav commentary on Yoreh Deah 249:1 (5) Midrash Tanchuma Deuteronomy 14:22 (6) Shulchan Arukh Yoreh Deah 249:6
The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.