Render to God (Avot 3:8)

Rabbi Elazar of Bartota said: Render to Him that which is His, for you and all that you have are His, as David said [I Chronicles 29:14]: “For all things come from You, and of Your own have we given you.” (m.Avot 3:8)

In his commentary on this passage, Rabbi Marc Angel associates this mishnah with a passage from a midrashic commentary called Yalkut Shimoni. It says:

The world was created in the merit of three things: in the merit of [the mitzvot of] halla, tithes, and first fruits (Yalkut Shimoni, Gen. 1:2).

How does this passage from the midrash relate to our current mishnah? This passage connects the reader to the topic of Rabbi Elazar’s state: ownership. The midrash says that the world was created in the merit of three things: challah (the portion of a batch of dough that is given to the LORD), agricultural tithes, and first fruits. All three of these things point to Hashem’s ownership of the world. Although we may till, sow, water, and harvest our crops, their existence relies the LORD. Even though we may toil through the process of harvesting, threshing, winnowing, and finally milling the grain to produce a fine flour that is then combined with other ingredients to make a loaf of mouth-watering bread, the ingredients ultimately belong to Hashem, as the Scriptures tell us, “The earth is the LORD's and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1).

Rabbi Elazar reminds us that we are to give back to the One from whom we have received all things. Although we may feel as if we have earned full rights to what we have toiled over, we must always remember that we are merely stewards over the material possessions of this life. True ownership of all things belongs to He who created it and blessed us with its stewardship. Even we, ourselves, are not our own as Rabbi Elazar says, “For you and all that you have are His.” Paul, writes in a similar manner saying, “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 6:19–20). The Didache echoes this sentiment in its instructions to Gentiles saying, “You shall love the God who made you” (Didache 1:2). Because each one of us were given life by God, we are therefore indebted to our Creator for that gift.

There is a related incident in the Gospels that this mishnah helps to illuminate. In Matthew 21, a group of Pharisees brought a question to Yeshua in order to test him. They asked him, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (v. 18). Yeshua responded by saying, “Show me the coin for the tax.” They brought him a denarius and he asked them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They responded, “Caesar's.” Yeshua’s response astounded them. He said, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.” Although the question of what exactly belongs to Caesar has been debated, the portion that belongs to Hashem is clear: challah, tithes, and first fruits. Rabbi Elazar responds similarly to Rabbi Yeshua, saying, “Render to Him that which is His, for you and all that you have are His.”

What are we giving back to Hashem, and is it all that He requires? Are we rendering to God what rightfully belongs to Him, or do we believe that all that we are in full possession of all that we have been entrusted with? Are we rendering to Caesar, but forgetting about what we should be rendering to God? May we all give back in appropriate measure to the One who has given us all, including His Only Son.