“Never overpromise.” This is one of the first things a salesman learns. Because eventually, the customer will find out. If you tell him that your missile flies eight kilometres and it really only flies six kilometres, he will somehow discover this and then you can do one of two things: smile sheepishly and apologize or forward the problem to engineering.
The Torah is very careful not to overpromise. It rarely says “If you do such-and-such then such-and-such will happen”. There are almost always provisos. An example is the case of the sotah, a woman who has been warned by her husband not to seclude herself with her suspected lover. If she is caught secluding herself, then she must drink the “bitter waters”. If she has sinned, then the Torah predicts that the bitter waters will cause her to die a most horrific death. But if she has not sinned, then she will become pregnant. How would we react if we knew unequivocally that a woman had sinned and yet the bitter waters did not kill her? The Talmud in Tractate Sotah is rife with provisos that can serve as a temporary or permanent antidote. For instance, if the woman has accumulated merit over the years, the effect of the bitter waters will be delayed, while if the husband is also guilty of an extramarital affair, then the bitter waters will not work at all. There is no way to unequivocally prove or disprove the Torah’s claim. The Torah warns us not to even try [Devarim 6:16]: “Do not test G-d”. If the Torah promises us something, then we should accept it at face value. Nevertheless, there is one exception. The Torah commands [Devarim 14:22] “You shall tithe one tenth of all the seed crop that the field gives forth, year by year.” The Talmud in Tractate Ta’anit [9a] interprets the Hebrew “A’ser t’aser”, translated above as “tithe one tenth”, as if it were written “A’ser [bishvil she’ti]t’asher” – “Tithe so that you will become wealthy”. This promise is counterintuitive: not only will taking ten percent off the top of your crops not adversely affect your bottom line but it will actually increase your wealth. As for the prohibition against “testing G-d”, the Talmud issues a one-time waiver, referencing a verse in Malachi [3:10]: “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse and let there be food in My House, and thus put Me to the test, said G-d. I will surely open the floodgates of the sky for you and pour down blessings on you”. If G-d says “put Me to the test”, who are we to say no?
Practically speaking, it would be straightforward to put G-d to the test. All you need are two groups of farmers. One serves as the control group that does not give any tithes. The other group of farmers religiously gives tithes. Both groups start out with equal wealth and then we wait for some predefined time, say, ten years. At the end of that time, we calculate the net value of both groups. The Torah promises that, on average, the Tithing Group will have accumulated more wealth than the Control Group. What would happen if someone actually performed this test? Is it guaranteed that the Tithing Group would accumulate more wealth? How should a believing Jew react if the Control Group came out on top?
Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, better known as the Vilna Gaon (“Genius”), who lived in Lithuania in the eighteenth century, can give us some traction. The Gaon offers a logical explanation for the Talmud’s assertion that a person will increase his wealth by tithing his crops. He points to two seemingly unrelated commandments. The first is the commandment to rebuke a person who has done wrong [Vayikra 19:17]: “You shall surely rebuke (hoche’ach tochi’ach) your fellow”. The Talmud in Tractate Bava Metzia [31a] notes the double use of the verb “hoche’ach” and comments that a person must rebuke his friend “even one hundred times” if necessary. The second commandment is the returning of a lost object [Devarim 22:1] “You shall not see your brother’s ox or sheep straying, and ignore them. [Rather,] you shall surely return them (ha’shev te’shivem) to your brother.” The Talmud in Bava Metzia quoted above makes a similar statement regarding this commandment: noting the double use of the verb “ha’shev”, it comments that a person must return his friend’s lost objects “even one hundred times” if necessary. When the Torah orders the giving of tithes using the double “A’ser t’aser”, we would have expected the Talmud in Bava Metzia to order us to tithe “even one hundred times” if necessary. The Gaon explains that this ruling would be untenable as the Torah limits the amount of charity that a person must give to one fifth of his income. Therefore, we must explain the double use of the word “tithe” in a different manner: A person who becomes wealthy due to his tithing will tend to accumulate more crops, which he will also tithe. This tithing will result in even further crop accumulation which will result in even further tithing. Eventually he will tithe his crops “even one hundred times”.
The biggest takeaway from the Gaon’s explanation is that wealth accumulated via tithing is not a goal in itself, but, rather, a means with which to give additional tithes. The actual goal is to maximize the amount given to charity. Let’s flesh this out. Judaism is not an ascetic religion. It does not scorn affluence. Indeed, many Jews who are scrupulous about keeping G-d’s mitzvot enjoy a good single malt. Nevertheless, wealth is not a goal, it is a means to achieving a goal. The Rambam illustrates this concept via the commandment to rejoice on a holiday [Hilchot Shevitat Yom Tov [6:17]]: “When a person eats and drinks [in celebration of a holiday], he is obligated to feed converts, orphans, widows, and others who are destitute and poor. In contrast, a person who locks the gates of his courtyard and eats and drinks with his children and his wife, without feeding the poor and the embittered, is [not indulging in] rejoicing associated with a mitzvah, but rather the rejoicing of his belly.” Our wealth is a tool to be used to increase the happiness of those who are less fortunate.
But what about our own happiness? Is that not at all important? The Torah itself reinforces this question. At the end of its discussion on tithing, the Torah offers the following summary [Devarim 14:26]: “You shall turn that money into whatever your soul desires; cattle, sheep, new wine or old wine, or whatever your soul desires, and you shall eat there before G-d, you shall rejoice, you and your household”. The Torah is explicitly concerned with our pleasure. It wants us to eat, drink, and be merry, and an excellent way to address this concern is with large amounts of currency. Why, then, does the Gaon reinterpret the Talmud in a way that sets the happiness of others above our own?
The answer to this question lies in the definition of “happiness”. Psychologists define two types of happiness: hedonic and eudaimonic. Hedonic happiness is attained through experiences of pleasure and enjoyment while eudaimonic happiness is attained through experiences of meaning and purpose. Hedonic happiness is attained by drinking a bottle of 12-year old Cardhu Single Malt or by watching the Giants destroy the Cowboys. Eudaimonic happiness is attained by eating a fig from the tree you planted twenty-five years ago or by listening to your grandchild tell you what he just learned in kindergarten about the weekly portion. Hedonic happiness is short-term pleasure. Eudaimonic happiness is long-term satisfaction. Investing our tithes in the well-being of the less fortunate increases both types of happiness: The recipient of our charity enjoys the hedonic pleasure of a good meal while we bask in the eudaimonic satisfaction that we have done the right thing.
Now we can return to our “testing of G-d” and the prospects of failing the test. The amount of money in the bank accounts of the participants is an incorrect metric for measuring wealth. Our Sages teach [Avot 4:1] “Who is wealthy? One who is satisfied with his lot”. It is the total amount of happiness – of the satisfaction of the giver and of the pleasure of the recipients – that must be measured. Of course it is impossible to measure happiness in physical units. We cannot crown a “winner”. But when G-d says “Test Me”, he is not interested in the results of the test – He is interested in the performance of test itself. By creating and perpetuating a culture of giving, G-d guarantees that we will all live happily ever after.
Shabbat Shalom and stay healthy.
Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5780
Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and David ben Chaya.
 As one with experience in both engineering and marketing, the latter option is by far the most common.
 See the Talmud in Tractate Ketubot [50a]
 Control engineers refer to this as a “Positive Feedback Tithing Loop”.