Moses’ Law dictated that a tenth of all income was holy and dedicated to God, to be given as an act of worship. This tithe applied to all grain, fruit, wine, oil, spices, and livestock accumulated each year. Every Jew was required to pay three tithes: one for the Levites and priests, who were responsible for religious duties throughout Israel; one for Temple use and upkeep, which included food for annual feasts; and one for the poor. It’s not certain how and when these tithes occurred during each seven-year cycle. For those living far from Jerusalem, grain and fruit tithes could be purchased upon arrival for an additional 20%, presumably to facilitate lighter travelling. Livestock tithes, however, had to be transported as they were and consumed in Jerusalem.
The Hebrew (ma’aser) and Greek (dekate) words both mean “tenth.” Similarly, the English “tithe” is from the Old English term meaning the same.
The practice of tithing began before Moses’ Law was established and may have been a common custom in the ancient Middle East. Abraham, as the forefather of Israel, gave a tenth of all he owned to Melchizedek, the king of Salem (Jerusalem) and a priest of God. Similarly, Jacob promised God that “of all you give me, I’ll certainly give you a tenth” (Genesis 28:22). With its inclusion and regulation in Moses’ Law, tithing became an integral part of Hebrew religion and economy. Both Malachi and Amos – prophets of the Old Testament – harshly denounced Israel for withholding and mismanaging tithes.
Among the spices mentioned as being tithed by the Pharisees (Mt 23:23; Lk 11:42), mint (Greek hedyosmon) is a fast-growing, sweet-smelling flowering plant that was used as a spice and medicine. It was best cultivated in cool, moist environments. Rue (peganon) was another garden herb, but unlike mint, it produced yellow flowers and a strong odor, and it was best grown in hot, dry soils. Rue was also used as a medicine, particularly to promote menstruation. Anise (anethon, often translated “dill”) had a sweet flavor that was used to season food and liquor. Like many other spices, it was also used medicinally – anise was consumed in a tea to treat insomnia and promote lactation in nursing mothers. Finally, cumin (kyminon) was used for its strong aroma throughout the Middle East as a seasoning.