Pay your taxes, says the Torah

The rabbis took such a dim view of tax avoidance that they even cited it as a cause of the destruction of the Temple


The controversy over those who seek to avoid paying taxes may have hit the headlines recently, but is also to be found in the Bible and rabbinic literature.

Taxes themselves go right back to Leviticus, although in those days it was called a tithe, and was levied on the then major commodities: grain, wine, oil, cattle and sheep.

Its initial purpose was as support for those who did not produce their own food, the priests and Levites who supervised the religious rites; it then developed during the period of the kings to finance the royal officials and a standing army.

Taxes were the price the Israelites paid for communal organisation, as we still do. Moreover, from early on they included an element of social responsibility, for part of the revenue raised went to the poor.
It is also the case that so long as there has been tax, there has been avoidance. The Talmud tells of those who attempt to dodge their dues and describes them as not just common thieves but “robbers of the public” who offend against the community as a whole (Baba Batra 35b, 88b).

A later rabbinic responsum declares them to be even more dastardly, for they are also sinning against God — because, in the absence of detailed records, tax was often paid by self-assessment and one swore on oath what one was worth. Those who lied were therefore taking God’s name in vain, and it was held that they would forfeit a place in the world to come.

It is significant that when Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) records the sayings of leading rabbis, many are pious utterances, but that of Rabban Gamliel is much more practical: “Do not get used to guessing your taxes”, implying implies that people did indeed fiddle the figures (1.16).

In order to discourage such practices, it was customary in some towns for the rabbi to give a sermon the week before taxes were collected, emphasising everyone’s moral duty to be meticulously honest and assess themselves correctly.

Those who were caught transgressing faced not only fines, but also humiliation: a Jewish court ordered one tax-dodger to be flogged three times in synagogue during the evening service on a Monday, Thursday and following Monday and then he had to declare in a voice clearly audible to all: “I have sworn falsely on my tax declaration. I have sinned. I have done iniquity. I have acted illegally. I shall not follow that path again.”

Another modern evil with ancient roots was the tendency of some rich Jews in the first century to avoid paying taxes and transfer the burden onto the poor — which Yochanan ben Zakkai cited as one of the reasons why the Temple was destroyed.

Still, the temptation to cheat was particularly great for Jews as they often faced double taxation when they were living in Christian or Muslim lands; not only did they pay the normal taxes imposed on everyone, but faced additional taxes specific to Jews: in Roman times, the fiscus Judaicus; in the Christian Middle Ages, it was the opferfenning; in Muslim countries the kharaj.

In fact, tax could be a triple burden for many Jews, as they were also subject to internal taxes that the Jewish authorities charged them to maintain communal life.

This has survived till today in the form of the levy that many synagogue imposes on headstones at a cemetery, which is then used to support children’s educational programmes. Thus the estate of the generation that has passed away helps the new generation progress.

Underlying the whole issue of tax is that as well as being a legal obligation, it is a moral practice. The key aspect is not so much individuals paying out, but society taking in and using the money to maintain services, such as roads, hospitals, schools and defence forces. Taxes are about mutual responsibility and the sort of society to which we aspire. No one wants to pay taxes, but the reality is that a world with taxes is far happier than one without them, especially if everyone pays their fair share.

The overwhelming rabbinic view down the ages is that the mark of a civilised society is a tax-paying one; convoluted schemes that go out of the way to avoid paying what is due may be lawful, but are also immoral.
Those who hide their money in offshore accounts or non-productive companies not only fail to support the community in which they live, but also increase the expense upon everyone else. We may not be able to flog them, but certainly should not honour them with aliyot or positions of leadership.

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