Ask the rabbi: Does Halacha mandate paying local taxes?

Any attempt within a just society to manipulate Halacha to avoid one’s civic obligations constitutes a massive desecration of Judaism’s reputation.

May 20, 2011 16:12
4 minute read.
Ask the rabbi: Does Halacha mandate paying local taxes?

money 88 248. (photo credit: Courtesy)

The definitive obligation of Jews to observe local laws and regulations has engaged the Jewish community over the past several years because of a number of high-profile white-collar crimes by Jews. Beyond its public ramifications, this issue remains fundamental to understanding our responsibilities to wider society, whether in Israel or in the Diaspora.

On several occasions, the Babylonian Talmud authoritatively quotes Shmuel, the prominent third-century Babylonian sage, as declaring, “Dina demalchuta dina” – the law of the kingdom is the law. Perhaps not surprisingly, this principle gets cited most prominently in a discussion about tax collection (BK 113a). The Talmud prohibits evading tax collectors, unless they collect unlawfully without proper governmental mandate, or in an arbitrary, inequitable manner. Interestingly the Jerusalem Talmud never mentions this principle, leading some historians to speculate that the Sages did not apply it in an era of suppression and tyranny. In a just system, however, most authorities believe that this principle carries the force of biblical law (Avnei Miluim 28:2), and that tax evaders violate the biblical prohibition of theft (Shulhan Aruch Harav, Gezela 15).

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Beyond taxes, medieval authorities debated the scope of this principle. This debate reflected, in part, different perspectives on the rationale behind recognizing the law of the land. Some asserted that a king’s right to enact laws stemmed from his ownership of his territory. Just as an individual property owner may set rules of entry into his land, so a government can regulate under what conditions one may reside in its territory (Rosh Nedarim 3:11). This rationale might even justify regulating select groups of citizens (such as Jews) in different ways, since the ruler is entitled to regulate all rights in his territory (Maharik 194). Most authorities, however, contended that regulations that discriminate among different citizens remain unjust and non-binding (Beit Yosef CM 369).

More importantly, this rationale might restrict the purview of laws covered by the principle to matters strictly related to land and territory, such as real-estate regulations and taxes (Or Zarua BK 447). Similarly one might contend that if this principle is based on territorial ownership, it does not cover the Land of Israel, in which all Jews are inherently entitled to dwell (Ran Nedarim 28a). According to an extreme interpretation of this last opinion, dina demalchuta would not apply in the State of Israel (even as other halachic principles might empower the Knesset’s authority). Many decisors, however, have contended that even according to this interpretation, basic matters of civil regulation would remain mandatory in the Land of Israel (Hatam Sofer CM 5:44).

In any case, the dominant strand of Talmudic commentators contended that the principle of dina demalchuta is grounded in social contract theory. According to this approach, residents of the land implicitly consent to the regulations of the local authority to maintain civil order (Rashbam BB 54b). As such, the laws equally remain binding in the land of Israel and elsewhere, and would apply with no distinction between a Jewish and non-Jewish sovereign (MT Gezela 5:17-18).

Even within this approach, decisors still debate the scope of laws under its purview. Maimonides, for example, seems to apply the rule only in cases in which there is direct “benefit to the king,” although he does not clearly delineate which laws would fall into that category. Other decisors, however, accept this principle in broader terms to include most matters of monetary and civil regulation (Beit Yosef CM 369). Consequently, Halacha mandates respecting traffic laws as well as intellectual property rights, including copyrights on music and videos.

Yet two important limitations are applied to this principle. First, dina demalchuta has no impact on ritual matters or personal status. As such, government laws that entirely ban ritual slaughter of meat (shehita) or circumcision would surely not be recognized. Orthodox decisors have similarly ruled that civil divorce writs have no impact on one’s halachic personal status (Gitin 10b), even as the Reform Movement, in part on the basis of this principle, recognized civil divorces in 1869.

Second, civil monetary regulations, including matters of inheritance and money-lending, that directly contradict Torah law would not necessarily be recognized as binding (CM 369:11). However, when both parties stipulate that they willingly accept conventional contractual agreements made in the financial world, these agreements may become enforceable (Shach 73:39).

We must emphasize that any attempt within a just society to manipulate Halacha to avoid one’s civic obligations, including tax payments, constitutes a massive desecration of Judaism’s reputation. The famed 13th-century preacher Rabbi Moses of Coucy (Smag Aseh 74) once declared that the greatest sanctification of God’s name would take place when Jews had an international reputation for honesty in business.

May we earn that title quickly in our days.

The writer, online editor of Tradition and its blog, Text & Texture (, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel.

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