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The Jewish Ethicist: Pharaoh's Tax

December 26, 2010 | by Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem

Taxes need to have both substantive and procedural fairness.

Q. What are the principles of fair taxation in Jewish tradition?

A. Last week we discussed a few principles of fair taxation in Jewish law. One was that taxes should ideally be proportional to the benefit received. This week we will discuss two other principles, which can be inferred from what is recounted in the beginning of Exodus.

We read in the beginning of the book of Exodus (1:8-11, Living Torah translation):

A new king who did not know of Joseph, came into power over Egypt. He announced to his people, 'The Israelites are becoming too numerous and strong for us. We must deal wisely with them. Otherwise, they may increase so much, that if there is war, they will join our enemies and fight against us, driving [us] from the land. [The Egyptians] appointed conscription officers over [the Israelites] to crush their spirits with hard labor. [The Israelites] were to build up the cities of Pithon and Ra'amses as supply centers for Pharaoh.

The Onkelos translation renders the word "conscription officers" as "wicked overlords," condemning Pharaoh's levy. Subsequent to the conscription described here, this wicked Pharaoh decreed that the Israeli babies be cast into the Nile, and his successor further advanced the subjugation of the children of Israel.

What made his conscription so infamous? After all, King Solomon also made a massive conscription to build his cities (I Kings 5:27-29):

And Solomon raised a levy on all of Israel, and the levy was thirty thousand men. He sent ten thousand men a month to Lebanon by turns, one month in Lebanon and two months at home, and Adoniram was appointed on the levy. And Solomon had seventy thousand porters, and eighty thousand quarriers in the hills.

The difference is the purpose of the levy. Solomon's levy was intended to build public buildings for the kingdom; the burden on the workers was a regrettable side effect. But Pharaoh's levy was intended to oppress and cause misery; the building of the store cities was a bonus.

Misuse of public authority is considered a major sin in Jewish tradition; we learn this from the story of King David and Uriah. David was severely censured and punished by God for sending Uriah to fight in a dangerous battle. It is true that some soldiers had to be sent to fight, but since David's motivation was to kill Uriah, this was likened to murder, as the prophet told him: "Uriah the Hittite you have smitten with the sword"(II Samuel 12:9).

Another lesson learned from this story is the need for taxes to have public legitimacy. Pharaoh did not impose the tax in an autocratic way; he felt the need to lay out the need for the levy and establish its legitimacy. This is a principle mentioned by many commentators regarding fair taxes; there is a need not only for substantive fairness but also for procedural fairness, that the tax be imposed in a transparent and politically legitimate fashion. (1)

SOURCES: (1) See e.g. Tosafot BK 58a.

This article drew significantly on an article by Yaakov Potchebutzky, Esq. on the Daat site.

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