Beit Midrash

  • Family and Society
  • The Israeli State and Goverment
To dedicate this lesson

Are We Obligated to Pay Taxes?

It seems to me that when a king comes to power, the Knesset will not be disbanded; neither will the institution of elections be discontinued. The government will not lose its importance. There will still be a need to run the state as we know it today.


Rabbi Baruch Paz

1. Running the State Without a King
2. The King’s Place and Purpose
3. Two Systems of Taxation
4. Implications for Modern Israel

Running the State Without a King
The Torah says, "Yet [the king] shall not amass for himself horses...and he shall not amass for himself wives...and he shall not amass for himself much silver and gold" (Deuteronomy 17:16, 17) Attention should be paid to the repetition of the words "for himself." The significance of this is that the horses and the sliver and gold that the king has are his, as personal property; they are not public or state property.

This is also apparent from the fact that the Torah mentions horses, silver, and gold in the same context as wives, and just as it is clear that his wives belong to him in a personal sense, so do his horses, silver, and gold. This also stands to reason, because it makes no sense to say that the Torah prohibits the increase of national money reserves. Rather, we must conclude that the Torah seeks to limit the king’s personal wealth.

This is in fact explicit in the words of the Rambam (Melakhim 2:4):
"And [the king] shall not accumulate for himself silver and gold in his storehouses in order to boast or glorify himself through this; rather, [he may accumulate money] in order to pay his soldiers, his workers, and his servants. Any silver or gold that he accumulates in the Temple reserves, so that it be available there for the needs of the public and for their wars, counts as a virtue. The only thing that is forbidden is to amass wealth for himself in his own storehouses, as it is written, ‘He shall not amass for himself much silver and gold.’"

There was a difference, then, between state money that was stored in the Temple reserves and served public needs, on the one hand, and the king’s personal wealth, on the other. Regarding the former there was no prohibition against amassing; to the contrary, it was desirable that there be large reserves set aside for emergencies, etc. It did not belong to the king and therefore would not fill him with arrogance. The latter, on the other hand, because it belonged to the king and remained in his possession, was liable to cause the king to become haughty.

The King’s Place and Purpose
In addition to this distinction, there is another question that deserves consideration: Is a king even necessary for the functioning of a Jewish state or monarchy? And if not, what is the role of the king at all, and what other systems are available for the functioning of the state?

It would appear that the king is not a necessary factor for the functioning of a Jewish state. This is evident from the discrepancy between early authorities over the question of whether the Torah holds the appointment of a king to be obligatory or optional (see Rambam, Melakhim 1:1, as well as Ibn Ezra Deuteronomy 17:16, and Abarbanel in the Shoftim Torah portion who is of the opinion that Rambam does not consider this a commandment). Were a king indeed necessary there would be no room for such a discrepancy.

What is more, how could Samuel the Prophet oppose that which is required for the existence of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel? In addition, the fact is that the Jewish people managed to function in their land for hundreds of years before appointing a king. All this leads to the conclusion that it is possible to run a state without a king.

However, one question that arises is by which authority they collected taxes, repaired roads, provided for the poor, raised an army, etc.?

The explanation, though, is obvious enough: There exists in Judaism an independent framework for public works that does not call for a king - funds collected by the public for the sake of the public. We find such collection in all spheres of life: security-related matters (Baba Batra 7b, 8a), welfare (ibid. 8b), infrastructure maintenance such as waterworks and road construction and upkeep (ibid.), the building of synagogues and purchase of holy books (Orach Chaim 150:1), and education (Baba Batra 21a).

We find, then, that there exists an apparatus concerned with the proper functioning of the community without a king, and it is possible to compel people to pay for such matters on the grounds of community welfare. For this no king is needed. Indeed, Jewish communities have functioned in this manner from time immemorial, and it would appear that this is how the Israelites functioned in the days of Samuel the Prophet, etc.

In light of this, another question arises: What is the role of the king if the system can function without one? The answer would appear to be that the king constitutes an additional system, beyond the systems that deal with the nation’s basic functionality. All matters of welfare, education, construction and infrastructures, policing, etc. functioned fine without a king. The entire apparatus of surrounding the king belonged to the king privately, and was not community money whatsoever. This was not the case regarding money that was collected from the population in order to provide community services.

Two Systems of Taxation
It would appear that when Israel appointed a king, the existing systems that provided community services and needs were not done away with. Rather, an additional system was established. The role of the king was clearly defined by the Rambam (Melakhim 4:1): "A king is enthroned in order to provide justice and wage wars, as it is written, ‘Our king will judge us and will go out before us and fight our wars.’ It is not written that the king replaces existing systems, but that the king fills an additional role of providing justice and carrying out wars.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 20b) discusses whether or not it is permitted for the king to carry out all of the things written about in the Book of Samuel (chapter eight). The Rambam rules that it is (Melakhim 4:1) and concludes that "the king is permitted to impose taxes on the people for his own needs and for the sake of his wars." This means that there was a system of taxation that provided for the king’s "needs...and wars" and went beyond the system of taxation aimed at the needs of the public alone.

The purpose and nature of these two taxations was different. Taxes levied for public needs were community funds used for services that benefited the public. Money collected for the king belonged to him; it was used for his needs and for his wars. The public would not benefit directly from the king’s taxes, for they were meant to serve him. It is to these taxes that the Torah refers when it says that it is forbidden for the king to amass money and gold, save for "his soldiers, slaves, and servants" (Melakhim 3, 4). I might even go so far as to say that the term "tax" applies only to those dues the king exacted for himself from the people. Such payments were like a yoke on the peoples’ shoulders; instead of serving them it went straight to the king’s private treasury.

This difference between taxation for the public and taxation for the king gave rise to a difference in the criteria by which the taxes were levied. The sages of the Talmud (Baba Batra 7b) raise the question of whether, when taxing for purposes of municipal security, payment is set according to proximity to the city wall or according to personal assets. The essential question is who benefits more from this tax. A person with assets is protecting his assets; a person who lives close to the wall is protecting himself.

From here we see that the criteria for taxing the public depends upon the benefit one pays for; the greater the benefit, the greater the tax. This accords with what we wrote above, i.e., that this tax is for the good of the public, and this being so all members of the public have a responsibility to contribute money to provide the community with the necessary services. This is why such taxation is according to the benefit one derives from the money.

The king’s taxes, on the other hand, were applied equally to all, based upon head count or land. There was no differentiation in payment based upon benefit received. This is due to the simple reason that the king’s taxes are not for the purpose of services; it is money that the king levies for his personal needs, as noted above. Citizens do not benefit from it in any direct manner and it is not meant to serve the public. Therefore, it is not collected based on the criteria of benefit.

What is more, the king need not give citizens any explanation regarding how he spends this money. We can see that the king’s taxes were imposed equally from what is written, for example, in tractate Baba Batra (8a) on the verse, "It shall not be lawful to impose upon them [the priests and Levites etc.] minda, belo, and halach. The Talmud explains that minda means the king's tax, belo the poll tax, and halach denotes property tax. Poll and property taxes are collected on an equal basis, according to head count, grain, or livestock, and it would appear that the king’s tax is of the same nature (see Rashi, ad loc.).

The Rambam clarifies this for us (Gzela Ve-veda 5:13): "Customs imposed by the king, who declares that a third or fourth, or any other fixed amount will be levied...or a king who places a tax on the citizens, or a fixed annual amount for every individual, or a fixed amount for every field, or if he decrees that whoever performs a particular offense will have all of his possessions confiscated to the king’s palace..."

We see that all of the various forms of the king’s taxes are single-rate in nature and are not dependent upon the level of benefit derived by the individual. This is, as we have said, because the money given to the king is not given on the basis of services that the king must provide the public. Rather, the king has the right to take money from citizens for his needs. This money belongs to the king; he may do with it as he sees fit, and he does not owe the public anything whatsoever in exchange.

Taxes for the purpose of defense likewise have the status of public need (based upon Baba Batra 8a, which says that people may be forced to provide money for their town’s security).

Implications for Modern Israel
This brings us to the IDF. The Israeli Army today is purely defensive in nature; it does not initiate wars. For example, every time it appears that Israel’s armed forces are larger than they need to be, proposals are made to reduce annual reserve duty. In other words, the army is not being maintained for its own sake, but purely for the sake of defense.

This is the essential difference between the "king’s legions" and an army without a king. Indeed, even before Israel had kings, they had an army. But it was a reserve army that was called up every time there was threat of invasion, etc. I assume that there were also training exercises and expenses involved in maintaining this army. As noted, these expenses would have been collected based upon public need.

But when a king finally came to power over Israel, he established a standing army and forces that took up the task not only of defending the nation but also of initiating wars, e.g., the war against Amalek, the war against the Seven Nations, and then non-obligatory wars of conquest.

In the words of the Rambam (Melakhim 5:1): "First the king wages obligatory wars. What is an obligatory war? The war against the Seven Nations, the war against Amalek, and wars that rescue Israel from hardship. Once this has been done he may wage non-obligatory wars, e.g., wars against other nations in order to widen the borders of Israel, to increase their prominence and reputation."

Before a king came to power, there was no army for initiating war; there was only an army that would repulse enemy aggression. It goes without saying that today’s Israeli army is no more than a defense force, and that its purpose is not to initiate war. Therefore, the taxes that go to its upkeep are the result of public need.

What arises from this distinction is both a stringency and a leniency. The stringency is that even according to the Ran (Rabbenu Nisim), who holds that "dina d-malkhuta dina" (the law of the land has halakhic bearing) applies in the Land of Israel (because the king does not have the authority to expel a Jew from his land), there is an absolute obligation to pay taxes today, for the obligation to pay taxes does not stem from the king but from community needs.

On the other hand there is a leniency, i.e., that the collection of taxes today is based entirely upon community needs. This being the case, if there is a general consensus to treat leniently certain forms of tax evasion, it will be permissible to evade such taxes, for there is condonation on the part of the community, and the power of taxation comes from the community alone.

Therefore, it would seem to me that a person who works a second job on the side need not declare this income if it is a small amount, because most of the public treats this phenomena leniently. Likewise, it would appear to me that it is permitted to do business with a technician who occasionally does not give receipts for his work.

Consequently, it also appears to me that when, soon, a king rises up to rule over Israel, the Knesset will not be disbanded, neither will the institution of elections be discontinued. The government, as we know it, will not lose its importance. There will still be a need to run the state as we know it today, a need for a minister of the treasury and a minister of education, ministers of health, security, the interior, infrastructures, etc. The king will not deal with such things. There might even be a need for a defense department, as we know it today, to deal with basic security matters.

When a king arises, everything will operate as we know it today, except that there will be an additional authority - the authority of the king, which will collect taxes independently and which will maintain an independent army for general national objectives beyond what we are familiar with today.
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