Hopefully by now you are well on your way to filing your United State income taxes which are due this year April 18th (unless you apply for an extension). What is the Jewish perspective on paying taxes?
Jewish law insists that we are obligated to pay our governmentally-imposed taxes. The duty stems from the famous statement of the Talmudic sage, Shmuel: Dina de-malchuta dina, “the law of the land is the law.” In other words, the law of the land in which Jews live itself becomes a religious obligation as well. Our great medieval philosopher, Maimonides, explained that tax evasion constitutes stealing from the king. He adds that this rule applies only to a king to whose rule the citizens have consented, which ostensibly fits the bill for any democratically elected government (thus including ours)!
Throughout our history, special taxes were often placed upon Jews. We know of the Biblically-mandated half-shekel tax which Israelite men ages 20 to 60 paid to the Jerusalem Temple. This money served a dual purpose: first, to count as a census (since it was deemed bad luck to count heads); and, second, to support the Temple. After the destruction of the Temple, Rome demanded a fiscus Judaicus, a Jewish tax, which was redirected to Rome for the building of a temple to the Roman god Jupiter. The tax not only humiliated the Jews, but also deterred proselytizing.
In the book of Esther, King Ahaseurus celebrated his new queen by “proclaiming a remission of taxes for the provinces.” Since he wanted people to rejoice with him, he had to provide an ancient stimulus package for them.
Likewise the king would have been reluctant to go along with Haman’s plot to kill the Jews given the ensuing loss of tax revenue, so Haman paid the king 10,000 talents of silver to make up for the loss of such Jewish taxation.
Ironically, after Haman’s demise, it was Mordecai who became vizier to the king and taxes were then reinstated. Because taxes appear in the very last chapter of the book of Esther, some Jews boo when they hear of the word “taxes” even as they do for the wicked name “Haman.” Other scholars suggest that Mordecai’s rise to power came because he stabilized the economy based upon Jewish taxation!
While we hope that paying our taxes will indeed be a gift that gives back – that we will receive in equal measure public services including road repair, public schooling, firefighting, and police protection – there is yet one more benefit to being fair and honest with regard to our taxes. According to the Talmud, when we face the Divine Judge we will be asked a series of questions about how we lived our earthly lives: “Did you make time for Torah study?” “Did you anticipate redemption?” And what is the very first question we are asked? It has nothing to do with our religious or spiritual life. Instead, tradition has it that the very first question we will be asked by the Divine Judge is: Nasata ve-natata be-emunah? “Did you conduct business honestly?”
Hopefully our taxes will not be the stumbling block to a life and afterlife filled with rewards!
Shalom, Rabbi Judy Chessin