Taxes and Jewish tradition

We are currently completing the month of April, the month of the dreaded income tax return filings. Taxes are one of the two certainties of human existence.

taxes88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
We are currently completing the month of April, the month of the dreaded income tax return filings. Taxes are one of the two certainties of human existence. The current idea of income taxes is a relatively new invention, not having been enacted in the United States until the 20th century. Yet the idea of taxes appears in the Torah, regarding the head tax of half a shekel per male member of a household between the ages of 20 and 60. This tax had a dual purpose: it was the method of obtaining an approximate census count of the Jewish people by counting the half shekels directly instead of counting the people personally. This is done in accordance with the Jewish tradition that one does not count Jews directly. Thus in order to ascertain if, let us say, a minyan is present in the synagogue for services, one does not count the people present by number, but rather uses a verse from the Bible containing 10 words as the mechanism for such counting. The second purpose of the half-shekel tax was to provide for the public sacrifices and upkeep expenses of the Temple in Jerusalem. Since the holy Temple was the place where the centrality of the relationship between God and Israel was most physically represented, every Jew, no matter what economic stratum he belonged to, was obligated to pay the half shekel. Its payment was a reaffirmation of one's bond to the covenant that bound God and Israel to each other. We read in the Bible of other forms of taxation as well. King Solomon employed a tax - a levy on able-bodied men - to construct the Temple in Jerusalem. We read of his impressing 30,000 men into his service and sending them into Lebanon to toil in bringing the great cedars to Jerusalem for the Temple's construction. The Bible uses the word mas - a tax - to describe this method of national service labor. We read in the final chapter of the Book of Esther of the tax that Ahasuerus, the Emperor of Persia, imposed on his empire. Knowing of Ahasuerus's proclivity for prolificacy and extravagance from the earlier chapters of the book, we can well imagine that he, like many kings after him, was always a little short of money at the end of the month. In the book of Samuel we read of Samuel's strong warning to the Jewish people of the levies and taxes that a king would impose upon them. There is discussion in the Talmud as to whether such taxes were in fact legitimate for a king to demand from his people. Be the Talmudic discussion as it may, it is obvious that the kings of Israel and Judea and, in Second Temple times, the Hasmonean kings as well, imposed taxes on the populace in the Land of Israel. When the country fell under Roman rule in 63 BCE, the Romans and their governors in Judea taxed the Jewish population almost unmercifully. In the Mishna and Talmud we find that tax collectors, even pious Jews, were held to pointed criticism from the rabbis and the general population. To put it mildly, taxation was never popular among Jews in the Classical Era. In the long exile of Israel, the individual Jewish communities taxed their members in order to support the necessary local institutions and religious functionaries. This tax usually took the form of an additional charge for kosher goods plus a head tax. In some communities, an additional type of income tax was imposed. This was all in addition to the taxes exacted from the Jewish community by the local and national governments of the countries where they now resided. Sometimes these taxes placed an onerous burden upon the people, resulting in continuing enmity between the community and the heads of the community, especially between them and the lower economic classes. Many of the causes of the secular and leftist rebellions against Jewish tradition as represented by the Orthodox leadership of the Jewish communities in 19th- and 20th-century Eastern European Jewish life stemmed from the methods and enforcement of the tax system within the community, which was deemed to be unfair and biased. The formulation of a fair and equitable tax code and system that will not punish or benefit any one section of society unduly and will prove to be economically stimulating and growth productive is an elusive target. Though it will never be completely accomplished, the pursuit of such a system should be a continual task of government. The writer is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator (