Parashat Shekalim — Taxation and Belonging
Dedicated in Memory of R’ Abram Kurcfeld, my wife’s grandfather, a Holocaust survivor who passed away this week.
This week, we read Parashat Vayakhel and also a special parasha of Shekalim, the latter a memorial to the Mishnah: “On the first of Adar they make a public announcement about the shekels.” They made this announcement on the First of Adar to remind everyone to pay their annual taxes to purchase public offerings prior to the first day of Nissan, which is the first month of the year.
In relation to the half-shekel, the Torah tells us: “Everyone who is entered in the records, from the age of twenty years up, shall give God’s offering: the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel when giving God’s offering as expiation for your persons.” In other words, the half-shekel tax was not a progressive or regressive tax, but rather a “poll tax” that made each person liable to pay a fixed sum without reference to income or resources.
In addition to this uniform tax collected for the foundations of the Mishkan, the Torah tells us about an additional giving:
And everyone who possessed blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair, tanned ram skins, and dolphin skins, brought them; everyone who would make gifts of silver or copper brought them as gifts for God; and everyone who possessed acacia wood for any work of the service brought that (Exodus 35:23–24).
In contrast to the fixed “poll tax,” some of the Israelites donated an amount relative to their assets. There was no requirement to give a certain amount. In fact, there was no requirement to give any amount at all beyond the half-shekel. However, this generosity or self-imposed tax financed the entire national project of the Mishkan, except for the foundations, which were financed by the aforementioned shekalim.
In modern economies, an equally-applied “poll tax” is considered the most harmless tax to levy on an economy. However, poll taxes have sometimes caused civilian unrest and even changes in government. Most recently, Margaret Thatcher resigned in 1990 following widespread criticism of her “Community Charge” poll-tax policy, which she had promoted to reduce income tax. Given the two “taxes” focused on national infrastructure described in the biblical verses, I would like to ask — what is the Torah’s model for this form of taxation (there is also tithing) and what message can we learn from it?
The “poll tax” collection of a half-shekel for the Mishkan teaches the importance of collective “skin in the game.” Everyone should equally fund the basic infrastructure and services needed by all members of society, such as street lights, garbage collection and public parks. By not collecting money from 100% of society, we weaken social solidarity and erode public trust in societal systems and institutions.
The main benefit of the half-shekel model is that it increases the essential sense of belonging and lubricates social trust. Even if the tax levy is minimal, such uniform giving strengthens societal ties by making everyone an owner and ensuring that everyone has skin in the game for upkeep and improvement. When everyone becomes a partner invested in the enterprise, other people are more keen to pay in additional funds according to their capabilities and wealth. Uniform basic financial participation bolsters mutual responsibility and ensures continual upkeep of such projects. This is my recommendation for the tax system today–a required, minimal “poll tax” plus the option of discretionary additional payments. (In future divrei torah, I will address additional modes of taxation).
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