In addition to our reading of Parashat Pekudei, this Shabbat we have a special maftir reading from Exodus 30:11, known as “Shabbat Shekalim.” Rabbi Idit Lev finds parallel in these readings between the half shekel “regressive tax” taken in the Bible, and modern day Israel’s National Insurance and healthcare system. Both work under the belief that when everyone contributes equally, all are equal partners. Rabbi Lev then goes on to remind us that since this is the case, it is only appropriate that in policy discussions, everyone’s voice be heard — including the voices of those living in poverty in the current policy discussions of the Elaluf Committee.
By: Rabbi Idit Lev
A regressive tax: no discounts or exemptions
The coming Shabbat, called Shabbat Shekalim (celebrated before the coming of the month of Adar), we will read this maftir:
“And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: ‘When thou takest the sum of the children of Israel, according to their number, then shall they give every man a ransom for his soul unto the LORD, when thou numberest them; that there be no plague among them, when thou numberest them. This they shall give, every one that passeth among them that are numbered, half a shekel after the shekel of the sanctuary–the shekel is twenty gerahs–half a shekel for an offering to the LORD. Every one that passeth among them that are numbered, from twenty years old and upward, shall give the offering of the LORD. The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less, than the half shekel, when they give the offering of the LORD, to make atonement for your souls,’”(Exodus 30:11-16).
From Tractate Shekalim in the Mishnah we learn that the half shekels collected from the people were used for the sacrifices but also to repair roads, streets, cisterns and more. The half shekel tax was collected right after Purim and before Pesach, so Jerusalem could be prepared for the pilgrimage.
Rabbi Gilad Kariv says that “a study of the tax laws shows that in our terms that would be called a “regressive tax.” As opposed to the tithe, which reflected a fixed fraction of a person’s income, and as opposed to today’s progressive tax systems that set tax rates according to total income,the half shekel tax, as its name indicates, was a nominal uniform tax that did not ‘take into consideration’ the individual’s income. This tax was imposed on every Jewish person, without discounts or exemptions.”
With this measure, the sages who established the tax relied on the biblical precedent that told of the collection of a half shekel tax from each person who made the Exodus from Egypt, while declaring: “The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less, than the half shekel.”
Uniform contribution enables all to be equal partners
This demand of an equal distribution of the tax was also expressed by the Rambam, who said: “Even a pauper who lives from charity is liable” (Mishne Torah, Hilkhot Shekalim, 80a:1). Rabbi Kariv explains: “The uniform tax, which was actually a sort of fee, was a clear expression of the idea that each member of the Jewish community had an equal and identical share in the sacred public space.” The uniform contribution enables everyone to be equal partners.
We saw a similar expression in the recent argument over the idea of funding the “war on poverty” by canceling universal allowances. Every person in the State of Israel (or at least every household) is obligated to pay National Insurance Institute payments and every person has to pay for health insurance. As a result of that payment, all citizens of Israel are entitled to medical care and to two universal allowances (which are paid to everyone without a test of income): child allowances and old age allowances (from the age of 70 for men and 65 for women). Child allowances are no longer universal because the top one thousandth is supposed to give back the allowance it received at the end of each year (this has not happened yet).
Making a “group” into a “nation”
As part of the discussion in the committee to fight poverty, there were some who proposed to fund the committee’s recommendations by transferring money from the top deciles (9 and 10) to the war on poverty. Were that proposal accepted, it would have shattered the solidarity surrounding the National Insurance Institute: everybody pays in and everyone receives, some of us less (because we have more) and some of us more (because we have less). That is the same solidarity we are talking about in Shabbat Shekalim: the whole nation pays a uniform tax and the whole nation shares the public space.
That partnership is the basis that turns that group of people into a nation: partnership in the places where the individual needs help, whether for good reasons (birth) or sad reasons (like disability). Happily, as soon as the proposal was raised, a significant public outcry arose against it and in favor of partnership, and at least for the moment it is not expected to be one of the recommendations of the Elaluf committee to fight poverty.
Keeping the accounting “clear”
In the portion of the week, Parashat Pekudei, we learn about Moses giving an accounting to the people of the money donated to build the Tabernacle, and the Levites serving as supervisors, headed by the son of Aharon: “These are the accounts of the Tabernacle, even the Tabernacle of the testimony, as they were rendered according to the commandment of Moses, through the service of the Levites, by the hand of Ithamar, the son of Aaron the priest,” (Exodus 38:21). Dr. Yitzhak Koenigsberg offers that Moses made his report to the people of his own initiative, “to prevent slander, gossip and libel by provocateurs among the people of Israel, to uphold the verse: ‘then ye shall be clear before the LORD, and before Israel,’” (Numbers 32:22).
On the basis of Moses’s behavior, Chazal (the Jewish sages of the Mishna) established rules of conduct with public money. For example: Two are needed to collect charity and they may not separate from (and lose sight of) each other. Such ensures that they supervise each other. “If collectors of Tzedakah have no poor people to give to, they may exchange the (copper) coins with other people (for silver coins, which do not rust). They may not exchange them with their own coins,” (Baba Bathra, 8b).
In Masekhet Shekalim in the Mishna we learn: “The one that drew the money was not allowed to enter (the treasury) with a turned-up garment, nor with shoes nor sandals, nor with tephillin, nor with an amulet, in order that, in the event of his becoming impoverished, it should not be said that he was thus punished on account of transgression against the treasury; or if he became rich, that he enriched himself by means of money drawn from the treasury. For a man must stand as unblemished before his fellow man as before his God, as it is written: ‘Then ye shall be clear before the LORD,’ (Numbers 32:22), ‘So shalt thou find grace and good favor in the sight of God and man,’ (Proverbs 3:4).”
“The purpose of these halachic rulings and many others is to remove the suspicion of irregularity or corruption from people who handle public money. That money must be pure and must also be seen to be pure.” Today we may draw a parallel between the fear of corruption in collection to our concern when treasury officials retire from public service and very quickly start working for the tycoons they were supposed to be supervising as part of their public service.
The two sections that we are going to read next Shabbat complement each other: everyone should pay a small amount that all can afford, in order to be part of the public space. And on the other hand, those who handle the money that comes in must be meticulous to ensure there is not even the slightest suspicion over the management of public money.
A reminder that all are a part of the public sphere
Rabbi Kariv concludes his article: “The choice of Jewish tradition to remember the tax with a special Shabbat and with different customs followed at this time of the year has anchored in the Jewish calendar the important insight about the appropriate balance between the private and the public. It calls on us to recognize that sometimes reducing a financial burden and transferring it to the few who can seemingly bear it easily, can ultimately come at a heavy price, and that precisely because the philanthropy and activity of individuals is so important – clear limits must be set to it.”
We must remember this especially at this time when we are discussing what can be done against poverty. However, that discussion is being held by academics and experts from the public sector, government ministries and municipal authorities – while people living in poverty are not part of the discussion. We must remember that the men and women living in poverty make a significant contribution to our public sphere, and a government attempting to design a comprehensive program for the lives of people living in poverty should have invited them to be part of the conversation.
Rabbi Idit Lev is the Director of Rabbis for Human Rights’ Social Justice Department.
IMAGE: Pieter Brueghel, “Paying the Tax Collector,” 1620-1640, cc-Wikipedia