The Hebrew word for “tax,” both ancient and modern, is mahs and is first mentioned in Exodus 1:11, where the Torah recounts how Pharaoh assigned “taskmasters” over the Hebrew slaves in order “to oppress them.” For “task” you can also read “tax,” which is the more literal translation. Taxation can indeed be oppressive and has been used through the ages to oppress us.
The Torah teaches us that supporting the needs of the community is important, but not at the expense of the individual. The Torah’s ideal of taxation is for everyone, rich or poor, to contribute the same: “The wealthy shall not increase, and the poor shall not decrease” (Exodus 30:15). At one point in the desert, the people gave so eagerly to the collective cause that God alerted Moses to the overflow: “The people are bringing far more than is needed!” Moses then had to plead with the people to stop sending in their checks (Exodus 36:5-6).
Taxation, Jewish-style, exists solely for the welfare of the people being taxed. When it becomes self-serving for governments or monarchies, it fails. Even the wise King Solomon learned this in his elder years as he watched his mighty empire slowly crumble as a result of his excessive taxation.
Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
Thousand Oaks, CA
America has been good for the Jewish people. Being a citizen means enjoying the rights and shouldering the responsibilities afforded to us. Some may wish to enjoy the protections and freedom our nation provides with no concern for the cost, but such a position is shortsighted. A nation cannot thrive, or even survive, if its citizens seek only to use its benefits but never to pay for them. As citizens, we have a responsibility to pay our taxes, but more than this, we have a responsibility to be fully engaged participants in our national conversation. Is there a Jewish position on taxes? Of course not! Although some stories in the Bible speak of taxation, our mandate to pay our taxes today comes from being citizens of the United States of America.
Rabbi Robert Barr
Congregation Beth Adam
In the eyes of the Torah, our material wealth belongs to God. Taxes are a mechanism for redistributing the wealth that is temporarily ours, ensuring spiritual and material support for all. If we are blessed with an income, the Torah instructs us to donate 10 percent to support the national spiritual guides (priests and Levites) and 10 percent to sustain the lives of the most needy (widows, orphans and new immigrants). Later biblical books validate the financial needs of increasingly complex communities. Monarchs build public buildings, wage war and support large staffs of ministers. Citizens must pay for this. Halachic teachings say that if a government is just enough to win the consent of the people and its tax collectors are honest, we are obligated to pay the established taxes. But the ideals of the Torah still apply. We may refuse to pay taxes to protest a government that ignores foundational spiritual obligations, such as caring for its citizens in need.
Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan
Or Shalom Synagogue and ALEPH Rabbinic Program VAAD