By Rabbi Joel Seltzer
If you drive a car, I’ll tax the street,
If you try to sit, I’ll tax your seat.
If you get too cold I’ll tax the heat,
If you take a walk, I’ll tax your feet.
Don’t ask me what I want it for
If you don’t want to pay some more
‘Cause I’m the taxman, yeah, I’m the taxman
— George Harrison, “Taxman,” 1966
From Benjamin Franklin’s certainty regarding “death and taxes” to the Beatles lamenting Britain’s progressive taxes of the ’60s, one theme of humankind remains consistent regardless of age or era: taxes.
And don’t tell me you’re not thinking about it right now. The dutiful among us have already met with their accountants and, from what I’m hearing around the coffee maker, it isn’t looking pretty. Others of us are procrastinating — a temporary reprieve from inevitability.
But the truth is, long before the Fab Four sang about them, and millennia before our native son Benjamin Franklin complained about them, taxes are actually a biblical notion, and the different types of taxes a society needs to levy in order to function are painstakingly laid out throughout the Torah.
This week’s Torah portion, Vayakhel, also heralds the coming of Rosh Chodesh Adar II, which means that as a maftir (additional) reading, we add the first of four special maftir portions that are added in advance of Purim and Passover. This week’s portion, known as Parshat Shekalim, describes one version of such a biblically ordained tax, the Mahatzit HaShekel, the half-shekel tax.
In Exodus chapter 30, God speaks to Moses, explaining that he is to take a census of the people; those who are enrolled in the counting shall pay “a half shekel of the sanctuary weight — twenty gerahs to the shekel — a half-shekel as an offering to the Lord.” Then, in verse 15, an enjoinder is added to this tax: “The rich shall not pay more, and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel when giving the Lord’s offering as expiation for your persons.”
This extra prohibition, this mandate for the tax to be levied equally among the citizens regardless of economic status piques the interest of the commentators.
Ramban (Nahmanides) expresses concern that this injunction is equally applicable to the rich (who must not add more than a shekel) as it is upon the poor, (who cannot add even an ounce less than the prescribed weight), and perhaps this is why the Ramban does not count this verse as one of the 613 commandments. And the Hasidic commentator Rabbi Moshe Avigdor Amiel sarcastically opines: “The rich are extremely zealous in their observance of this negative commandment, it’s as though they have never transgressed it in their lives!”
Now, before we go and institute a national flat tax based on the above passage, it is important to note that the Bible has several other types of taxes such as Terumot and Ma’asrot, gifts to the priestly classes in the temple and tithing to the poor (see Numbers 18; Deuteronomy 14; 26.) These other taxes would be examples of proportional taxes, where each citizen had to set aside one-tenth of their wealth to support the most sacred institutions to the society, as well as to help those in their community who are less-fortunate.
And that is what makes the half-shekel tax all the more remarkable. Whereas the other taxes have clear economic and societal import, this tax is given to the operations of the Tent of Meeting “as expiation for your persons.” To cleanse our sins.
This type of tax, whose purpose is spiritual, cannot be a tax that is levied based on status or class. This type of burden must be born on the shoulders of each member of the community, equally. For in this way, says Rabbi Ovadiah ben Ya’akov Sforno, when all the community are lined up in solemn solidarity, “we cannot tell who is rich and who is poor.”
So in this, the high holy days of the tax season, let us dream of a time and a world where we can once again give equally and with united purpose — because our souls may depend upon it.
Rabbi Joel Seltzer is the executive director of Camp Ramah in the Poconos. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.