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The Challenge of Wealth

By Rabbi Dr. Meir Tamari


Mandatory Town Dues

Almost the whole world is following the example of lower taxation and lower social payments. This is not a purely economic decision but rather the result of a value judgment for society to assume less fiscal responsibility for social issues and to allow a greater role for personal charity. In order to obtain a Jewish perspective it is important to clarify the distinction between Jewish concepts of social justice and those of philanthropy; both for the individual as a citizen in the Golah and as a Jew in the Jewish state of Israel. Study of the following responsum addressed to Rabbi Moshe ben Baruch [Maharam of Rothenburg –late 13th century], may assist us in making this distinction. The fact that the responsum deals with the funding of a purely ritual issue does not alter its importance for Jewish fiscal thought.


“ We have learnt in the Tosephta (Bava Metziah, 11b-12a) that citizens of a town may force each other to pay for the building of a synagogue, to buy the books of the Tanach; Rabbi Meir adds that this applies to providing tzedakah for transient Cohanim. Can they use tax money to hire people to constitute a minyan, even if this was not their practice [new legislation always is a special issue in halakhic tax law]”.


If they do not have a minyan they may definitely force Shimon to come to the minyan or to pay a tax so that they can hire somebody else, as we learnt in the Beraita that they can coerce each other to fund all the needs of the community; [that is the ruling of all the Codes (Shulchan Arukh, Choshen Mishpat, section 163, sub-sections 1-3). That they may coerce each other to contribute to the community funds to hire the necessary number of men to constitute a minyan, is an accepted custom in all the communities of the galut. This is similar to the ruling [that is a form of taxation] in the case of the bathhouse keeper, the barber and the baker, who can be prevented from leaving town to go home to his village just before a festival, when they have a need for his services. However, if the ten people without him, they cannot compel him on the chance that one of the minyan would need to leave, since there is no end to such scenarios. Should some of the minyan wish to leave before the end of the prayers, they are coerced to pay for the hire of people to take their place.

Even though it is clear that all have to participate, the question still remains how the tax burden has to be shared, whether it is a poll tax or one that is levied according to wealth, a form of progressive taxation. It seems to me that the tax has to be shared, so that the rich pay a greater share. This is because to the rich, the cost of going to participate in a minyan in another town is greater. They have to leave their money idle and that is costly; so the bother is also a cost”. Shalom, Meir ben Barukh.

The answer of the Maharam makes it quite clear that a community-state has the power to fund the costs necessary for it to function and to tax its citizens. Some of these needs, the community may determine according to the wishes of the majority, whereas some of them are mandated by the Torah. Mandatory needs such as building a synagogue, buying a sefer torah, building a mikvah and paying for torah education for boys- have to be financed communally, even against the will of the majority. They include maintaining a minyan as we see from our responsum.

Halakhically, tax money is to be levied either on the basis of wealth or a per capita basis, or a combination of the two. When the use of the tax money was mandated by the Torah, the concept of utility is introduced. All are obligated to share equally in the tasks allotted, however, there is often an additional factor, namely the pleasure or benefit derived from the hiddur mitzvah or beautifying it. In our case the benefit that the rich had from having their obligation of communal prayer fulfilled locally rather than their having to go to the nearby town or village, meant that they had to pay for it. In the case of the mikvah in Monsey, their benefit was the more luxurious facility demanded; therefore, the additional costs, over and above the simplest mikvah which had to be financed equally, was to be borne by the rich (Iggrot Moshe, Choshen Mishpat, section80 ). In the same way this idea would make the construction of toll roads, in addition to a slower general system, a halakhicaly based fiscal policy. This idea of a utility function is based on the principle that one should not have a benefit from other people’s money without for it.

The idea that the costs of defense or infrastructure should be funded by tax money is readily accepted; this is not the case with health, education or welfare. However, halakha makes the social costs also part of the communal fiscal responsibility, and permits seizing assets of tax evaders, even on the eve of Shabbat. (Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh Deah, Hilkhot Tzedakah 248, sub-sections 1-2). It should not be surprising therefore, for us to find that throughout the ages, most Jewish charity to the poor, education and medical services were funded through tax money. The reliance on philanthropy is a recent phenomenon. In part this is the result of historical forces, peculiar to the Anglo Saxon countries, as in most European countries to this day, Jews are bound by secular law to contribute to the Jewish communal funds, while in Israel welfare until today, has always been state funded. In France, for example, religious and educational needs are financed by the tax on kosher meat. Is it fanciful to suggest that a similar communal share in the billions dollar kosher food industry, would many financial problems facing the community ? That would necessitate solving the conflicts of interest inherent in the existence of some 500 kosher authorities, many of them not communal.

Copyright © 2003 by Rabbi Dr. Meir Tamari and

Rabbi Dr. Tamari is a renowned economist, Jewish scholar, and founder of the Center For Business Ethics ( in Jerusalem.

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