Do you like paying taxes? At regular intervals, a variety of extremists and kooks trumpet the claim that paying taxes is voluntary and the Federal Government cannot compel us to turn over “our” money to “them” every year. This utterly fallacious claim rests on the IRS’s use of the term “voluntary compliance,” which does not refer to payment of taxes but rather to each taxpayer’s responsibility to calculate their taxes, file their paperwork, and pay their taxes on their own: we are expected to voluntarily comply with the law. The IRS knows we don’t like paying taxes. On April 14 this year, they announced their estimate that collectively we pay only 87% of what we owe. This tax gap amounts to $458 billion each year. Just to make that clear: $458,000,000,000.
For a brief moment, let’s pretend we don’t have to pay taxes. What would this country look like? What would happen to public schools, police departments and crime rates, highways, and public universities? Consider clean drinking water, sewers, trash collection, public health services, and the CDC. What would become of social security, Medicare, Medicaid, public housing, food stamps, WICK. Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.”
In ancient Israel there was no central government as we have today but there was a central shrine—the Temple—run by priests and Levites, who were the civil workforce of their time. The Temple and the priesthood were supported by regular payments of the populace based on “voluntary compliance.” Even earlier, before the Temple was built, people went beyond paying taxes. Some would pledge themselves, or their child, to lifelong service in a local sanctuary. Arguably, the most famous example is that of Hannah, whose story we read on Rosh Hashanah. Hannah is childless. Her husband, Elkanah, brings her with him each year to worship at the local shrine in Shiloh. On one such occasion, overwrought and miserable with longing for a child, unable to eat and in tears, Hannah vows:
“O Lord of Hosts, if You will look upon the suffering of Your maidservant and will remember me and not forget Your maidservant, and if You will grant Your maidservant a male child, I will dedicate him to the Lord for all the days of his life; and no razor shall ever touch his head.” (I Samuel 1:11)
Hannah pledges that if God allows her to conceive and give birth, the child will be dedicated to the sanctuary at Shiloh as a nazirite for life. In time, such vows were replaced by vows of a monetary value equivalent to the vowed person’s lifetime service in the sanctuary. The precise amounts are stipulated in this week’s parashah, B’chukkotai. While such vows are voluntary contributions, they are akin to taxes because they support the central national institution, the Temple, and its personnel, the priests. These vows exist against the background of fixed taxes legislated in the Torah. Torah doesn’t use the term “tax,” but effectively legislates fixed taxation in the form of tithes. This week’s parashah, B’chukkotai, touches on aspects of the national economy (particularly those that support the Tabernacle) that are effectively taxes.
First, a brief run-down of tithes, which worked on a seven-year cycle based on the shemittah (sabbatical year). The full system of tithes is complex; this summary is intended to give you the flavor of the institution.
• Every year, Israelites separated the bechorim (the firstborn of their flocks and herd), which de facto belonged to God and were sent to the Temple. B’chukkotai includes a provision in Leviticus 27:26–27 for bechorim born to ritually impure animals to be ransomed and the money, along with a 20% surtax, contributed to the Temple.
• Next, the Israelites separated the terumah (“heave offering”) from their grain, oil, and wine production to give to the priests to support them and their families so they could dedicate their lives to serving in the Temple.
• After separating terumah, Israelites separated one-tenth (tithe means “tenth”) of their grain, oil, and wine. In the third and sixth years of the seven-year cycle, this Ma’aser Rishon (“First Tithe”) was given to the Levites to support themselves and their families. The Levites had no land holdings. They worked in the Temple and the First Tithe was their civil salary.
• The Ma’aser Sheni (“Second Tithe”), the one-tenth taken in the first, second, fourth and fifth years of the cycle, was to be brought to the Temple, or redeemed for money that was brought to the Temple to, “spend on anything you want—cattle, sheep, wine, or other intoxicant, or anything you may desire. And you shall feast there, in the presence of Adonai your God, and rejoice with your household” (Deuteronomy 14:26). This was celebration money.
• In the third and sixth years of the cycle, the Ma’aser Sheni was set aside for the poor and distributed to strangers, orphans, widows, and anyone in need.
The complex system of tithes (of which I’ve only described a portion) supported the Temple and its priesthood, the underclass poor, provided an economic boost to Jerusalem at regular intervals, and insured that all Israelites participated in the upkeep and welfare of society. Given its scope, one would think that people could hardly be induced to pay voluntary taxes above and beyond the terumah, Ma’aser Rishon, and Ma’aser Sheni. How many of us pay our taxes on April 15 and then say, “Oh, what the heck—I’ll just write out another check and send it along to Washington!”? Yet people did, and apparently often.
Parshat B’chukkotai describes an institution whereby people voluntary vowed to contribute additional support for the sanctuary by pledging their own “value” or the value of their child. Perhaps because of its roots in earlier practice (e.g., Hannah’s vow) it had staying power. These contributions are called votary pledges. Torah supplies the scale:
When anyone explicitly vows to Adonai the equivalent for a human being, the following scale shall apply: If it is a male from twenty to sixty years of age, the equivalent is fifty shekels of silver by the sanctuary weight; if it is a female, the equivalent is thirty shekels. If the age is from five year to twenty years, the equivalent is twenty shekels for a male and ten shekels for a female. If the age is from one month to five years, the equivalent for a male is five shekels of silver, and the equivalent for a female is three shekels of silver. If the age is sixty years or over, the equivalent is fifteen shekels in the case of a male and ten shekels for a female. But if one cannot afford the equivalent, he shall be presented before the priest, and the priest shall assess him; the priest shall assess him according to what the vower can afford. (Leviticus 27:2-8)
It is natural to squirm with discomfort at the idea of ascribing differing “values” to human beings. Etz Hayim expresses it this way:
How do we measure the value of a person? The world at large values rich people more than poor people, economically productive people more than less productive, fertile women more than childless women, clever and attractive people more than others. In God’s temple, however, people are evaluated “by the sanctuary weight”… God views our worth differently than the world does.
While this observation concerning modern society is certainly accurate, the“sanctuary weight” is irrelevant; it is merely the denomination for payments. Whether counting in dollars or the sanctuary weight, Torah does indeed “value” people differently depending upon age and sex for the purpose of making an additional, voluntary contribution to the sanctuary. Why? The last verse quoted above (v. 8) explains that the valuations are estimates of what someone in a particular stage and position in life can afford. Those whose potential for economic productivity is less are expected to contribute less through their pledge. In an agricultural society, those between twenty and sixty years of age are the most economically productive and men could produce more than women, whose labors were divided between children and working the land. Those between five and twenty were less productive, especially women who were bearing children; those younger than five had more economic potential than actual capacity. And, of course, productivity wanes after sixty. The message is: pay what you can afford.
We also see that if one’s life circumstance does not fit the general estimate, the priest makes appropriate arrangements. Like the fixed tithes, the votary pledges were proportional to one’s means. It’s not that people were “worth” differing amounts, but rather that they were expected to contribute differing amounts based on what they idealistically, but also realistically, could afford. Similarly, Torah (Leviticus 5:7, 11) tells us that one who needs to bring a chatat (“sin offering”) for having committed an unintentional violation, but cannot afford the standard offering of a female sheep or goat may bring two turtledoves or two pigeons. If he cannot afford birds, he may bring a meal offering. Similarly, a woman who cannot afford to bring a sheep as a chatat to complete her purification after childbirth may bring less expensive birds (Leviticus 12:8).
I don’t know anyone who relishes paying taxes, and certainly not anyone who voluntary pays more than required. Yet a revealed in 2014 that while 56% of us react negatively to doing our taxes, 34% like or love doing taxes. The biggest complaint (57% of those surveyed) is that the wealthy do not pay their fair share.
We have many legitimate concerns. We want to clean up the tax system, cut waste, and remove fraud and corruption; inefficiency, waste, fraud, and corruption undermine the purpose of taxes. Many suggestions have been offered, such as replacing income tax with sales tax, increasing corporate taxes, decreasing corporate taxes, simplifying the tax code… and the beat goes on. Votary pledges are a reminder that taxes of all sorts support society, keep it functioning smoothly, and fund its institutions. They also remind us to respect the value of everyone’s contribution to society, regardless of means.
Holmes was correct: “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.”