One of the major certainties of human life is that we are all obliged to pay taxes to the governments that rule over us. In the history of humankind there has never been a government that did not need more money. Governments are by their very nature, inefficient and wasteful of the money that it brings in. Therefore all cost-cutting measures no matter how loudly publicized and grandly advertised are never sufficient to reduce the tax burden on the general population.
Our wonderful little country has a maze of tax laws and Israelis are very heavily taxed by the VAT (Value Added Tax) on almost all items and services purchased in the country as well as by an almost confiscatory personal income tax. In addition to this, there is the universal Social Security tax that is constantly rising.
Then there exists the dreaded arnona real estate tax and other ingenious forms of city and local taxation. To put it all together we pay a lot of money to the local and national governments in taxes. But that is not an Israeli phenomenon. All European countries also have high taxes and the United States will also witness a significant rise in taxes this year.
The fact that so many of our societies in the world are in fact societies that are dependent in one way or another on government welfare and subsidy programs, automatically forces the government to search for new income to keep the pump primed. Taxes are the first area of supplying that needed income.
We find taxes in the Torah though not as government income per se as much as in terms of spiritual commandments translated into material contributions. The kohein was to receive trumah - approximately two percent of the agricultural crop grown. The kohanim also received other forms – there are twenty-four different mandated categories - of contributions that were due to be given to the kohein.
One had the right to choose which kohein would receive the contribution but the contribution itself was, as mentioned, mandatory. There was a ten percent tithe on agricultural products that was to be given to the Levites. There was also a tithe to be given to the poor twice every shemitta cycle as well as various laws instructing one to leave produce in the field for the poor to gather.
There is no mention in the Torah of any form of direct governmental taxation on the people. However in the Book of Shmuel, the prophet already details taxes, both of personal service and of wealth that a Jewish king will be entitled to enforce to support his court, army and retinue. And throughout First and Second Temple times the kings of Judah and Israel taxed the people mightily.
Veiled criticism of this and other governmental excesses are the stuff of the prophets of Israel in their immortal words recorded in the Bible. Indiscriminate and unwarranted confiscation of private property by royal decree was considered by the prophets to be a moral outrage, though the Torah and halacha do provide for instances of eminent domain for the public benefit.
Throughout the history of the Jews in the Exile whenever Jews had some sort of autonomous rule over their own local community, the Jewish council collected taxes. These monies were used to pay the salaries of the rabbis, dayanim (judges), ritual slaughterers, teachers and other necessary public functionaries. Many times these taxes were paid through the enforcement procedures of the general non-Jewish authorities of the area.
If this was not possible then the enforcement procedures were exercised by the local town council itself through the withholding of services or by bans or even by forms of corporeal punishment. My father told me of an incident that occurred in his small town in Lithuania where a wealthy and influential Jew refused to pay his tax assessment to the Jewish town council for years on end. Eventually he passed away (this happens even to the wealthy and influential!) but the burial society refused to attend to his body until all of the back taxes were paid up by his family. Needless to say those taxes were promptly paid.
Much of the income to the town council came from a tax placed upon kosher foods especially meat and poultry products. Because of this, individual communities were quite zealous in refusing to allow kosher food products that were produced in another community - especially meat and poultry - to be sold in their locality. Many times this was cloaked by claims of insufficient kashrut stringencies but the bottom line, as in many cases in our religious world, was purely monetary. And that is what taxes are all about.