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    Taxes in Jewish history – Ask the Rabbi

    Q. What taxes did Jews pay in past centuries to maintain the Jewish community?

    A. Jews were required to pay internal Jewish taxes from Biblical times onwards. The poor, the widow, the orphan and the stranger all needed to be supported. They had to be allowed to share the observance of the festivals, and on Pesach those who were reliant on the communal charities had to be provided with wheat for matzot and the customary four cups of wine (Pes.10:1; Bava Batra, ch.1).

    The kohanim and levi’im were entitled to the benefit of an agricultural tax; both groups had no land of their own to farm and were provided with sustenance in return for the religious, educational and administrative services they rendered to the community. Some kings, however, such as Solomon, seem to have overtaxed the people (I Kings 12:4).

    In Talmudic times and later, citizens had to pay towards the upkeep of the synagogue, the maintenance of the town walls and the sentries and guards who were responsible for communal security (Bava Batra, ch.1).

    How the taxes were determined depended upon one’s income and the degree of benefit one derived from the services underwritten by taxation.

    Not everyone enjoyed paying taxes; the Midrash Tanchuma objects to people giving grudgingly and in Pirkei Avot, Rabban Gamliel insists on a responsible attitude and says, “Do not give your tithes by guesswork” (Avot 1:16). A person who fails to pay taxes is robbing the public (Bava Batra 35b) and is deemed by the tractate S’machot (44b) to be like an idolater since idol-worshippers both deny God and, by implication, reject the belief that every human being has a spark of divinity and deserves our help.

    Rabbinic scholars were exempt from some taxes, but not from those which benefited every citizen, such as taxes for the upkeep of roads (Bava Batra 8a). Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai said that non-payment of taxes was partly responsible for the destruction of the Temple.

    Apart from taxes imposed by gentile rulers, such as the greatly resented Roman Fiscus Judaicus, Jews in the Diaspora had to find funds by internal taxation to keep Jewish community facilities going. In some places, e.g. pre-war Germany, synagogues and rabbis were maintained from taxation collected by the government.

    Often, taxes on shechitah and life-cycle celebrations helped with the upkeep of the community. In England a tombstone tax was introduced to support Jewish education. In most communities, membership fees paid to congregations and organisations are essential expressions of commitment. Those who fail to pay them place Jewish life in jeopardy.

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