Bookstore Glossary Library Links News Publications Timeline Virtual Israel Experience
Anti-Semitism Biography History Holocaust Israel Israel Education Myths & Facts Politics Religion Travel US & Israel Vital Stats Women
donate subscribe Contact About Home

Ancient Jewish History: Taxation

Special taxation imposed on the Jews by the state or ruler of the territory in which they were living has played a most important part in Jewish history.


It is self-evident that a section of the population of a country which pays special taxes must receive special organization and hold a special status (see *autonomy ). On the other hand, the abolition of such special taxation implies an approach at least to parity of status and ultimate *emancipation . The state generally tended to impose the tax burden on the Jews by as simple and mechanical a means as possible – per capita, on houses, and the like. Hence the Jewish community body, which had the collective responsibility for the tax, usually tried to redistribute the amount to be paid on more equitable and less mechanical principles; this led to constructive social developments as well as tensions within the community.

Talmudic literature is filled with complaints against the severity of the taxation in Ereẓ Israel during the period of Roman domination. However intolerable this may have seemed, it was not discriminatory, and the pagan population of the area doubtless had similar complaints. On the other hand, the *Fiscus Judaicus introduced after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., diverting to the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus in Rome the half-shekel formerly paid voluntarily each year by every Jew to the Temple in Jerusalem, was definitely discriminatory, paid by no other than Jews. It was thus the forerunner of the discriminatory taxation of the Jews in Europe in the Middle Ages, and it was precisely imitated in the *opferpfennig poll tax exacted by the Holy Roman Emperors in Germany, as successors to the Roman caesars, from 1342. On the other hand, the Temple tax was in a way revived in the semi-voluntary *aurum coronarium levied by the Palestinian patriarchs from the Jewish communities to which their authority reached.

In the Dark Ages, especially in south Italy and Sicily, the Jews were so far identified with the dyeing industry that the special dye tax was known as the tincta judeorum, etc., implying that it was paid in effect only by Jews: this, which was claimed by the local bishops as their perquisite, thus became in effect a discriminatory Jewish tax. The Muslim world meanwhile imposed on the Jews, as on other nonbelievers, two special taxes – the *kharaj , a land tax in lieu of military service, calculated according to the productivity of the holding, and the jizya, a poll tax levied on unbelievers as the price of the free exercise of their religion. It is a moot point long discussed whether Jews paid special taxes in the Byzantine Empire. But when *Benjamin of Tudela was in Rome around 1169 he recorded as noteworthy that the Jews there paid no special tax to any authority.

With the development of Jewish finance in northern Europe the special taxation of the Jews entered on a new phase. One of the reasons for the toleration and protection they now received from the authorities was, precisely, their utility to the treasury. Every financial transaction was now subject to a tax in order to regularize it. Every phase in daily life – such as marriage or betrothal – required the royal license. Death duties ("reliefs") of as much as one-third were imposed on the estates of wealthy financiers. Fines were imposed on individuals, on communities, or on the entire body of Jews of a country to atone for misdemeanors, real or fictitious. In due course, in countries such as England, the system of "tallage" was introduced: theoretically an impost to meet some special contingency, it became, so far as the Jews were concerned, a regular source of royal revenue. Most detailed information regarding the method of exaction is available from England. The heads of the community were assembled and the royal demands intimated to them. The total amount would be divided among the various communities, which in turn would apportion the assessment among individuals. The so-called Jewish Parliament of *Worcester (1240–41) under Henry III consisted of from two to six representatives of every community of England, convened to apportion a tallage of 20,000 marks imposed on them. With the development of the financial organization of the *Exchequer of the Jews, a preliminary to the imposition of a tallage would be the closing of the *archae , or chirograph chests, which would be sent to the Exchequer for their contents to be investigated and the capability of each individual to pay determined; on some occasions this would be accompanied by wholesale arrests among the Jews to forestall evasion.

The systematic cancellation of debts due to the Jews in return for some immediate monetary payment from the debtors, especially in Germany from the close of the 14th century, was in effect an indirect method of taxation. In the same country a special poll tax similar to that levied on animals, and included in the same list of tolls, had to be paid by Jews at the entrance to every town and state. Even when dead, there was a special toll to be paid at the city boundary on the way to the cemetery. In *Frankfurt , no fewer than 38 different imposts were levied on the Jews, mostly additional to those payable by the other townsfolk. Any Jew encountered on the highway could be compelled to pay the dice tax to atone for the casting of lots for the garments of Jesus at the crucifixion. The tolls on the road, known as the impôt du pied fourchu ("toll of the cloven hoof"), were abolished in the eastern provinces of France only in 1784.

In medieval Spain, taxation covering both payments due to the treasury and those for the maintenance of communal institutions was levied generally on incomes, estimated either by assessors (posekim) or by individual declaration under oath. As a result of complaints, in 1300 James II of Aragon imposed the method of declaration in his dominion. Henceforth, all taxes both communal and royal were to be apportioned by a board representing the three economic strata of the community (manus) before whom every taxpayer was to declare his income under oath. Groups of small Spanish communities were combined by the treasury as a collecta for taxation purposes. For the system as it applied in a typical Spanish community see *Huesca .

In *Sicily there were a large number of special levies – apart from the poll tax (jizya) still retained from Saracenic times – on animals slaughtered in the Jewish fashion, on wine and cheese prepared for Jewish use, on cloth of Jewish manufacture, a "beam tax" on the sale of houses, a tax for permission to have musicians at weddings, and even a tax on childbirth. This was apart from the obligation to provide banners for the royal galleys and similar exigencies. A "Jewish Parliament," for the purpose of allocating taxation among the Jewish communities, similar to that held at Worcester in England in 1240–41, was convened at *Palermo in 1489 (Lagumina 754). In the ghetto period in Italy a graduated tax was originally levied on income or capital, it being left largely to the individual to assess the contribution he should make. In Venice, Padua, and other cities the assessments were made by a secret commission of transadori, whose identity was concealed from the contributors. At the close of the 17th century, a new system was widely introduced, known as the "cassella," or chest, in which the amounts were deposited at stipulated times in the presence of officials sworn to secrecy. A sermon would be delivered by the rabbi on the previous Sabbath emphasizing the moral duty of meticulous honesty. In some places money boxes were to be found also in certain buildings, where the prescribed percentage on brokerage could be deposited immediately. The conditions governing the system, which differed widely in details from place to place, were usually printed at intervals, in Italian or in Hebrew, for the guidance of the contributors. In Rome, in addition to the extraordinary impositions, regular taxes included a levy for the upkeep of the House of *Catechumens , another for the expenses of the carnival, and so on. Here as elsewhere in the Papal States the basis of the financial system was a tax not on income but on property, fixed for *Rome at 5 percent; at *Ferrara at 3 percent; at *Ancona at 1 percent, ultimately raised to 1¼ percent.

A meat or sheḥitah tax was very common throughout the Jewish world, sometimes payable not in currency but in tokens (see *medals ). In effect, this was also in its way a tax graduated according to means, it being assumed that the wealthy ate more luxuriously than the poor. Where the system of voluntary assessment was used in Italy, it was reinforced by a ban of excommunication on any person who knowingly made a fraudulent declaration of his income, and he would thus bear a constant burden of sin of which he alone was aware. Throughout the Jewish world, rabbis and scholars were supposed to be exempt from communal taxation, this often leading to complications and internal disputes. The Council of the Four Lands in Poland-Lithuania (see *Councils of Lands) owed its origin to the need for having a recognized and authoritative body for the assessment of the state taxes on the Jewish population, and, formally, this was the sole function of the council in the eyes of the state. The overall sum was distributed among the "provinces" which in turn divided their quotas among the individual communities. In the first half of the 19th century special taxation, e.g., on kasher meat ( *korobka ) and the Sabbath candles ( *candle tax ), was used in Russia as an instrument to discourage traditional observances in the Jewish communities.

After the Resettlement of the Jews in England, various proposals were made for the separate taxation of the Jews for the benefit of the Exchequer. None however was implemented, and this was of great importance in establishing for the Jews the equality of status which was the preliminary to emancipation. The example of the mother country, with the same implications, was imitated in the American colonies; though in *Jamaica and the *West Indies special taxation of the Jews was the rule until the early 19th century. The abolition of special taxation was a corollary to the admission of the Jews to civil rights in France and elsewhere on the continent of Europe at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries.

After the emancipation and the end of the special levies on the Jews, some sort of communal taxation remained necessary to defray the cost of communal institutions. The synagogues were generally maintained by membership dues, pew rentals, and voluntary offerings. In the Sephardi communities of northern Europe, etc., the system of finta assessed on estimated income by fintadores was widely used. The United Synagogue in London imposed a heavy levy on tombstones in order to defray the costs of education. In countries such as Germany and Italy, where the officially recognized Jewish communities were regulated by law, they had the right to impose taxation on all members, which was exacted by the governmental agencies, for the maintenance of essential institutions: refusal to pay hence became equivalent to withdrawal from the Jewish community. In *Argentina the Ashkenazi community paid a small due fee and most of the money for community affairs came from the high taxes on tombstones, whereas in the Sephardi community the percentage of intake was almost reversed. The situation was not much different in other South American communities.

For taxation in modern Israel see *Israel .