By Dr. Erica
Click photo to download. Caption: Dr. Erica Brown.
By now, if you are an American citizen, you hopefully filed your income taxes
by the April 15 date 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. The statement above, attributed to the Talmud scholar
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 the
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.” …read more