Beit Midrash

  • Family and Society
  • Financial Laws and Tzedaka
To dedicate this lesson



Rabbi Berel Wein

The arrival of the recent tax filing and paying season points out to us the inevitably of this necessary but most unpleasant factor in our lives. As the inheritance tax teaches us even in the next world there is no escape from the consequences of taxes. In the Bible we are told of taxes levied by Jewish kings - Solomon, for instance - and non-Jewish kings - Achashveirosh and others Government and all of its services depend on taxes to function. The only issues that therefore remain to be decided are who to tax and how much to tax. There are direct taxes such as on income and more indirect methods of taxation such as the value added tax, customs fees and the like. The bottom line is that government always needs more money and taxes are the way that it can acquire it. In Talmudic times the Talmud records for us that there were head taxes, real estate taxes, forced billeting of soldiers and customs fees among other forms of government ordered revenue streams. The main method in the ancient world for collecting taxes was through tax farmers - people who paid the government a fixed discounted amount in advance and thus purchased the right to collect the proscribed amount from the individual taxpayers of the community. These people, the tax farmers, were held in low esteem by the rabbis and the Jewish communities as a whole, for many of them were guilty of extortion, strong arm methods and venal corruption of the worst sort. There is opinion in the Talmud that their testimony was not acceptable in a Jewish court of law and that they were to be socially shunned.

In medieval and even later times Jews in Europe were invested heavily in being tax farmers for the feudal lords that controlled the areas of population. Even then the rabbis of the communities had an ambivalent attitude towards them. Jews did not have many great options to earn a living so the tax farmer had to be tolerated but he certainly was not an object of communal honor or high regard. The Talmud records for us that the great scholar Rabi Elazar ben Shimon was a tax collector and enforcer for the Roman authorities for a certain period of time in his lifetime. He reported Jewish tax dodgers to the Roman authorities who dealt with them harshly. When he was reprimanded by his rabbinic colleagues for so doing he justified himself by saying: "I am removing the thorns from the vineyard of Israel!" The rabbis retorted and said: "Let the owner of the vineyard [God] remove the thorns by Himself!" Hearing the opinion of his colleagues, Rabi Elazar ben Shimon left his post and went into hiding from the Roman authorities until his death. Even after his death his body was hidden for years and not brought to proper burial out of fear of the Roman authorities whose command position he had abandoned. When finally being brought to burial, his body was found not have decayed and was whole except for a worm hole in his ear. This was due to his once having willingly heard a scandalous comment about another Jew.

In the long and painful exile of the Jews over all of its centuries, taxes were one of the means of persecution used against Jews by their bigoted non-Jewish rulers. There were many special decrees from kings and despots, including the Church, forcing Jews to pay onerous taxes that were special to them The Jewish law of dina d’malchuta dina - the laws of the government are to be obeyed scrupulously - did not apply in this area of discriminatory taxation. Of necessity and survival, Jews used many methods of tax avoidance in those circumstances. This was especially true in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in the Russian empire of the anti-Jewish czars. The Czar’s decrees were so onerous that the Jews sullenly and sometimes creatively sought a way to avoid them. This created a mindset in Eastern European Jewish society of the moral legitimacy of cheating the hated government, especially in matters of taxation. This mindset accompanied many Jews to their new countries of residence even those new countries did not have laws that clearly discriminated against Jews in any way and certainly not in tax matters. It has taken a number of generations to uproot this mindset in the vast majority of the Jews of the world. Nevertheless, as recent scandals have shown us, it has not been completely removed from all communities in the Jewish world. No one enjoys paying taxes but the rule of dina d’malchuta dina applies completely in our world of today.
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