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Halacha Morality

Rabbi David SperlingElul 16, 5778
B"H Shavua Tov MY QUESTION is purely moral and HALACHIC. In some countries, sacramental wines are not subject to sales, or value added, taxation. These wines are marked "For Sacramental purposes only". My question is simple... and does not take into account whether the government cares, or does not care. IS IT STEALING TO USE THESE WINES FOR OTHER THAN SACRAMENTAL PURPOSES? Todah Rabah
Shalom, Thank you for your question. You ask in your question not to “take into account whether the government cares, or does not care” about the enforcement of their laws. This is of course a major issue – as a secular law has moral issues relating to it primarily based on whether there is in fact a desire to enforce the law. For example, there is a law on the books stating that all cases of employment require income tax to be paid to the government. However, in many countries the government itself would not really like to enforce that law with every teenager who did a nights baby sitter, or washed a car for some pocket money over the weekend. It is easier for the government sometimes to just “turn a blind eye” rather than legislate for each exemption. This being so, the moral issue of going against the law is completely different when the law itself wants to be enforced or not. So, if the government really does not care about the use of the wines, it is difficult to find a halachic objection to using them for non sacramental purposes. For if this is really the case, what halacha or moral law would one be breaking by using the wine for pleasure? The printing of a statement “for sacramental use only” when not intended to be taken at face value, has no value. However, in order to answer your question, we will assume that the law does in fact desire that wine sold as sacramental wine (and as tax free), be used for that purpose only. Even if they do not intend to send the police around to arrest people, they certainly do not intend to lose valuable tax revenue through people cheating on their wine purchases. If this is the case, there is certainly a halachic and moral problem using the wine for non- sacramental use. It would not be “stealing” necessarily – as one would not be taking something from the government. But rather non- payment of taxes, which is forbidden by halacha (and is not moral). The halacha allows the government (or any ruling body) to impose any form of taxation it desires – as long as it is fairly applied. That is, a tax system that taxes Jews but not non Jews, is invalid in halacha, and may be avoided. But in this case, all people buying the wine come under the same sales tax. It is totally forbidden in halacha to refrain from paying governmental taxes that one is obligated in – all the more so to avoid payment by the additional sin of lying. So, if buying the wine involves giving the impression that one is going to use it for only sacramental use, there is an additional sin of lying. Additionally, if it becomes known that a Jewish person was involved in such an act, then it also becomes a question of desecrating G-d's name, by giving Jewish people a bad name (a very serious sin indeed). Having said all this – let me stress that all of this is only true on two conditions. Firstly, as we said, the law really intends to be applied as the labeling says. Secondly, that the use is really not sacramental. One would have to examine the law to determine if, for example, drinking wine during a Shabbat meal (not for the obvious sacramental use of kiddush – but just during the Shabbat meal) might not be considered “sacramental” due to the mitzvah of “oneg Shabbat” (enjoying Shabbat). That is does “sacramental” include all drinking that is part of any mitzvah? Or – if we wanted to stretch the matter – does saying a blessing over the wine make it a “sacramental” use? To answer these questions one would have to examine the wording and intent of the law. Of course we are assuming the wines in question are kosher – if not, there are other serious halachic issues. Thank you for your interesting question – and may we all merit to build moral and upright communities, where we can add holiness and goodness. Blessings.
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