And Yosef imposed a twenty percent tax on the land of Egypt, which is still prevailing today… -Bereshith 47:26
Yosef displayed both wisdom and sensitivity in the way he levied this tax. Before he declared it to be law, he explained to the residents of Egypt the uprightness of establishing such an obligation. In doing so he won the confidence of the people, and insured that they would not feel that their money was being taken unjustly. Only then did it become part of the country’s legislation.1
As unpleasant as it may be to give over large percentages of one’s earnings, the halachah gives the ruling powers, both on the municipal and national levels, the right to collect taxes. Since they have jurisdiction over the land, they have the right to ask for a reasonable compensation from the residents of the land. If the inhabitants do not pay, the government can force them to leave their land. Therefore, anyone who does not pay taxes has violated the Torah prohibition against theft.2
The above halachah is only applicable if the ruling power makes a set tax which has equal standards for every resident of that area. If they single out a certain individual and unfairly tax him disproportionately to the other inhabitants of the land, they are considered thieves, and according to Torah law one is not required to pay such taxes.3 Likewise, if those who presently have control of the state are not recognized by the residents of the land as the ruling authorities, they do not have a right to collect taxes from the inhabitants, and if they do so they are considered thieves.4
Nonetheless, whatever the circumstances may be, there is absolutely no room to sanction taking money from the government which is not rightfully yours.5 This could cause a desecration of God’s name, one of the most serious transgressions. In addition, it may cause taxes to be raised, which would classify those who caused it as gozel eth harabim (having stolen from the public).6 This in effect means that they have stolen from every person in that area, an act for which it is nearly impossible to repent properly.7
1. Seforno on Bereshith 47:26.
2. Bava Kama 113a; Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 369:6. See also Ran, Nedarim 28a.
3. Rambam, Yad HaChazaka, Gezel 5:14.
4. Ibid. 5:18; Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 369:2.
5. Responsa Shevet HaLevi 5:172.
6. Pithchei HaShulchan 1:4 (end).
7. See article entitled “Forbidden Pastures I,” (page 82) on Bereshith 13:8 for further discussion on the topic of gozel eth harabim.
Text Copyright © 2005 by Rabbi Daniel Travis and Torah.org