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Tzedek and Tzedakah: A Heroic Tax Reform Initiative

A medieval rabbi builds a 'city of justice and tzedakah' by rescuing the poor
Noam Zion is a Senior Fellow Emeritus of the Kogod Research Center at the Shalom Hartman Institute since 1978. He studied philosophy and holds degrees from Columbia University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He studied bible and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the Hartman Beit Midrash. In the past, he led the Tichon program for North American Jewish educators and he teaches in Hartman Institute rabbinic programs: the Be’eri program

Consider this remarkable case of social activism and the way it almost led to the pauperization of the person who stuck his neck out for social justice. Rabbi Yom Tov Tzahalon (Safed, 1559-1638) was asked to issue a judgment on an unusual tax case that came before him. A local rabbi took the initiative to rescue some poor people from the oppression of the non-Jewish ruler with a guarantee that some wealthy Jews would back him up if necessary. But they reneged and refused to share in the outlay. What was the case? In order raise money from the Jewish community the ruler was forcing the purchase of unwanted grapes on poor Jews and then charging them for the produce. The local rabbi, whose name is not recorded, “sees that the communal distress from the outcry of the poor was great,” and so he approaches a non-Jewish noble to negotiate a fixed tribute from the community as a whole in lieu of the tax on the unwanted grapes that fell exclusively on the poor. However the local rabbi had to make bond as the personal guarantor of the revised communal payment. The local rabbi committed himself only after obtaining the agreement of ten leaders of the Jewish community who swore that they would raise the taxes to pay the tribute and rescue the poor from oppression. However the leaders did not raise enough money and so the rabbi was set to lose all he had put up as collateral.

How did Rabbi Yom Tov Tzahalon respond when he received a request to rule on this case? He answered definitively that it would be an injustice to this scholar “who took the initiative to build a city of justice and tzedakah to repay good with evil.” Besides “the law is that the whole community must repay what the scholar paid even if he acted without the official consent of the council and what he is did is done. For this scholar engaged in tikkun darkhei ha-medina, in fixing the ways of the state, for the success of its residents, for the sake of Heaven and to rescue the oppressed from the hands of the oppressor. Of course his takkana, his act of repair, his official arrangement, is valid even without the council’s knowledge. For this is analogous to a judge who can issue legislation to rebuke and to separate residents from violations [as defined by the Torah] against their will even though some of them do not consent and they recoil from his rebuke. So too this takkana is to separate the residents from violations” – the arrangement for the community to pay the tribute that will exempt the poor from oppression – “for you have no greater violation than robbery, oppression and despoiling of the poor and from the exploitation of the poor and widows. If the rich do not pay attention to their sin, then may a blessing come to the scholar who made this tikkun, this reformatory legislation, for them.”(New Responsa of the Mahariatz #168)

Generally medieval Rabbinic tax law is democratic, meaning the citizens of the Jewish community have the right to tax their members based on their consent, in the spirit of the American revolution’s slogan – “no taxation without representation.” However when the government violates the principle of equity, for example, by not assessing taxes according to one’s ability to pay – “from each according to their ability,” then the judges can review that legislation and veto it. In this unique case one scholar-cum-political leader has made a new arrangement with the non-Jewish rulers to redistribute the burden of tribute so that the wealthy will bear it, not the impoverished. He is praised him for “building a city of justice and tzedakah.” He calls this arrangement a takkana that fixes the state, just as Maimonides did. But he adds that it also rescues the rich from the sin of ignoring the plight of the poor and from the more serious crime of robbing them by making them pay disproportionately the burden of tribute to the oppressive non-Jewish ruler. Thus in a prophetic sense of tzedakah umishpat – the pursuit of justice in economic relations between rich and poor – the scholar becomes a social activist who reorganizes society in the direction of greater distributive justice. In the end such social action reorders the usual laws of taxation.

This medieval rabbi’s daring reminds me of the massive social protest for economic justice that swept Israeli society in 2011 as I composed these chapters. The protest lead the government to appoint a blue ribbon committee of economists and experts in education, health and sociology to make specific suggestions about how to readjust the state budget and the tax policies to increase equality and fairness among the burdens on Israeli rich, middle class and poor. The protest was clearly a modern-day example of Israeli society’s pursuit of tzedakah. umishpat, though its effect on long-term societal policy will still require much follow-up.

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