BY DR. ERICA BROWN / JNS.org
By now, if you are an American citizen, you hopefully filed your income taxes almost a month ago unless you requested an extension. If you are an American accountant, you are probably exhausted and need a trip to Hawaii. Now that we are slightly past this burden, it is interesting to reflect on taxes from a Jewish perspective.
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The Talmudic scholar Rabba said, “Observe that this must be true. For [the government] cuts down trees and builds bridges, and we cross them.” In that statement, Rabba presents the obligation of taxes as ultimately self-serving. If we cross bridges then we must pay for them. Paying taxes is one way we conform to another Talmudic principle, “the laws of the land are [our] laws.”
Unfortunately, there are some who make distinctions between Jewish law and federal/state law and are not careful about filing taxes or flagrantly flaunt the law with no intention to pay if they can get away with it. Rabbi Asher Meir, who has a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in economics, observes that distinctions must be made between exemptions and evasions. “It’s okay to minimize taxes by taking advantage of legitimate provisions of the tax law, or even by taking a reasonable position on an unresolved question of law,” he says. “But we cross the line into tax evasion, which is a criminal act, when there is no sincere claim of lawfulness.”
Throughout our history, special taxes were often placed upon Jews to “protect” them before they were citizens, and there are even studies of the role of the tax collector in Yiddish literature. We have taxes mentioned in several places in the Bible. The digitized March 2013 issue of the journal Sh’ma (accessible online) has an excellent collection of articles on Jews and taxes including a discussion of tax deductions for charitable giving, a much debated feature of American tax exemptions that is not true in many other countries. Charity is pure charity.
The one place in Bible that features taxes most prominently is the book of Esther. When Esther was chosen as the contest winner, King Ahaseurus was so happy he made a party and created a tax-break to allow the public to share in his joy: “He proclaimed a remission of taxes for the provinces and distributed gifts as befits a king.” Perhaps he understood that for those in his extensive empire to celebrate, they would need to feel it in their wallets. It was an ancient stimulus package, so to speak.
The Jews of this book were clearly tax payers because when Haman made his request to get rid of them, he had to fill the kings coffers with the 10,000 talents of silver to make up for the revenue generated through Jewish taxation. The treasury would suffer their loss and had to be supplemented for Haman to go through with his plan.
In a fascinating development, when Haman was hanged with his evil brood and the Jews triumphed, Mordechai became vizier to the king, and the king reinstated taxes. “King Ahaseurus imposed tribute on the mainland and the islands,” the Book of Esther says. Since taxes appear in the very last chapter of Esther, one scholar in the Talmud concludes that the king was “wicked from beginning to end.” Some have the custom to boo and hiss in synagogue when this verse is read, the same way that people make noise when Haman’s name is mentioned. Other commentaries connect Mordechai’s rise to the reinstatement of taxes. Mordechai rose to power precisely because he helped his own people while he stabilized the economy.
Robert Half, the famous founder of a job agency, said of taxes, “People try to live within their income so they can afford to pay taxes to a government that can’t live within its income.” Ahaseurus lived a life of great excess: lavish 187-day wine parties and yearlong beauty pageants. Someone had to pay for them. This is different from the Rabba’s view of taxes in the Talmud, which states that we pay for services that we need and should be expected to do so. Think of taxes in this model as the gift that keeps on giving, even though we feel its sting at this time of the year. And think of a world where there is no garbage collection, road repair, public schooling, fire department, or police officers—to name just a few expected services—and you might be just a little less unhappy to pay your taxes.
Dr. Erica Brown is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish non-profits.