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Tax Gatherers

In Jewish history in the period of Roman rule two categories should be distinguished under this heading: (1) mokhesim, farmers-general (see publicani), by preference of the equestrian order, and (2) gabba'im, their agents employed in collecting the taxes (sometimes also called publicani, as in the New Testament). The first Roman organization of taxes in Syria and Palestine was begun by Pompey (c. 65 B.C.E.). Under Gabinius' administration there was almost no place for the publicani in Judea, as Gabinius was their bitter enemy and tried in every way to eliminate them from the tax gathering in his province. However, during the Herodian period, Julius Caesar made the rulers of the new Jewish state responsible for the taxes (Jos., Ant., 14: 163ff., et al.). The Herodian rulers farmed the taxes out to individual farmers or to associations. In the period of the Roman principate poll taxes and land taxes were collected directly by officials (cf. Tosef., Dem. 6:3) and only customs, tolls, and similar taxes were farmed out to publicani. In the second and third centuries the bouleutai (= curiales), and the decemprimi of the towns and villages, and notable persons of the strategiae had to answer for the full payment of taxes imposed on their districts (see BB 143a). Often, to evade these duties, they took to flight. R. *Johanan even advised crossing the Jordan and leaving Ereẓ Israel rather than assuming such duties (TJ, MK 2:3, 81b).

As the burdens of taxation became ever more intolerable, so did the tax farmer or collector become a more hateful and dreaded personality (cf., Sanh. 92b, where a gabbai is likened to the bear in Amos 5:19). At times they even contrived to extract payments by torture (see Num. R. 17:5; cf. Philo, Spec. 3, 153–63). Being so unpopular, the collector's job was no easy one; indeed at times he ran great personal risk, as an enraged populace was quite likely to lynch him (Gen, R. 42:4). Since both mokhesim and gabba'im were classed with "robbers," talmudic law disqualified them from acting as witnesses (Sanh. 25b). Neither was their money accepted for charity (BK 10:1). Sometimes however, tax collectors were unwilling agents of the publicani. Thus, Tosefta Demai (3:4, et al.) reads: "At first [the sages] said, 'A ḥaver who becomes a gabbai is expelled from the order.' Subsequently they declared, 'As long as he is a gabbai he is not trusted, but if he withdraws from being a gabbai he is [again] trusted.'" A number of Jewish tax collectors and farmers are mentioned, e.g., Johanes from Caesarea (Jos., Wars, 2:287), Zechariah on the Jordan near Jericho (Luke 19:2), the tax gatherers at Capernaum on Lake Tiberias, probably responsible for customs, port duties, and fishing tolls (Matt. 9:9), etc. Tax collectors formed themselves into companies (societas publicanorum), each member taking a share (a quarter or less) of the collection and its profits, according to the capital invested.


F.M. Heichelheim, in: An Economic Survey of Ancient Rome, ed. by T. Frank, 4 (1938), 231–45; ET, 5 (1953), 46–51; A. Schalit, Koenig Herodes (1969), 290ff.; A. Inlak, in: Tarbiz, 11 (1940), 114–22; idem, in: Sefer Magnes (1938), 97–104.

[Daniel Sperber]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.