Shabbat HaGadol – April 13, 2019 – 8 Nisan 5779

‘Tis the season of freedom, and an undeniable sense of freedom accompanies the relief of being done with taxes prior to sitting down to our Seder. Some folks think real freedom would be no imposition of taxation at all. On this, our talmudic rabbis expressed some ambivalence.

Taxes in rabbinic times meant paying one’s dues to the much resented and distrusted Roman occupation government. As one Jewish fellow at the time conceded, Caesar was very keen on being rendered what was due unto Caesar. Our sages debated whether the taxes collected were for the sake of the common good, or merely to support the vanity and extravagance of the rulers. Some went so far as to suggest that, in a corrupt system, it may be permissible to resist by taking a false oath and lying to the tax collector (normally viewed as sinful behavior). But assuming a fair and equitable system, how could it be justifiable to ever take money from people without their wholehearted consent?

One talmudic sage, Rava, points out that we routinely cross bridges the government constructed from trees collected from property owners as a tax. If we are willing to accept the benefits of government funded projects, it would seem our consent to contribute our fair share to the government is implied. What if one were prepared to live totally off the grid and not even make use of public goods such as roads?

One medieval commentator, Perush HaRan, notes that the whole institution of occupancy rights depends upon the government; its rules and control over real estate. A government which confers citizenship and residency permits can, at least in theory, legitimately exercise its authority to expel people from its territory as well. Taxes are a kind of residency fee; so long as you pay you get to stay. So living “off the grid” would not be going far enough. To justifiably avoid taxes according to this opinion, one would have to be prepared to leave the country entirely!

Rabbi Reuven ben Astrobulus said, “The public squares, bathhouses, and roads the wicked kingdom builds would justify their ruling the world if they built them altruistically; but their whole intention is only for their own sake.” In an ideal world, the government is for the people; and the people wisely pay for it, through their taxes.

Have a liberating Pesach,

Rabbi Mitch Levine