Every Landowner Had An Obligation To Give A Tithe

There is a story told in the Talmud to emphasise and explain how the tone in which something is said is often critical in understanding what is meant by what is said.

The background to the story is that the Talmud mandated that every landowner had an obligation to give a tithe to the priests (the Cohanim). But there was a lot that was left to the discretion of the landowner – which priest or priests, and what quality the tithe should actually comprise.

Now on this particular occasion the landowner needed to be absent for a few days. He appointed a manager who he left in charge of gathering in the figs and grading them into three qualities – best, middle, and poor.

Now it so happened that when the manager was in the middle of doing this, a priest passed by. The manager knew he should give a tithe, he knew that every landowner had an obligation to give a tithe – but which quality? He opted for the safe bet and gave from the middle quality.

When the landowner returned, the manager told him he had given a tithe to the priest, to which the landowner replied ‘Why didn’t you give him the best quality?’

Now you tell me what the landowner meant. You cannot and I cannot without hearing the tone of his voice.

Did he mean that the priest was such a worthy person and the landowner considered the obligation to tithe so important that the manager should have given the best quality figs?

Or did the landowner use an ironic tone because he begrudged giving the figs for the tithe or to this particular priest?

Did he mean ‘Why stop halfway – why didn’t you make an even worse decision than you did, and give the priest my best figs?

It’s all in the tone of voice – and that is what the story is intended to illustrate.