Paying taxes does not rank high on most people's lists of enjoyable activities. Our politicians have been adept at exploiting this mind-set as they try to seduce us with promises of tax cuts. This antipathy to taxpaying is even more pronounced in undemocratic regimes, where the citizens have no voice about the uses to which their contributions will be channeled.
In talmudic Babylonia, the Jews chafed at the many taxes levied by the absolutist Persian monarchy, particularly the k'raga, the onerous poll tax. Some of rabbis were vocal in their insistence that they were entitled to an exemption, even though this would ultimately require the rest of the Jewish community to compensate for the revenues that were thereby lost.
When the Exilarch, the political head of Babylonian Jewry, insisted that the rabbis contribute their share of the communal obligation, Rav Nahman bar Isaac retorted in indignation that such a policy would constitute a violation of the Torah, the Prophets and of the Holy Writings--though, to be sure, the ingenious proof texts that he adduced for his case were hardly likely to convince any impartial readers.
It remains unclear how successful the Jewish sages were at persuading the community and its leaders that they were entitled to tax-exempt status. However, what could not be achieved through official legislation could sometimes be arranged by private negotiations.
Such was the case of Rav Pappi. He once issued a judicial ruling in favour of a certain Bar Hama who had been accused of murder. Rav Pappi's disqualification of the prosecution witnesses led to the exoneration of the defendant. Bar Hama was so delighted at the outcome that he kissed the rabbi's feet and gratefully pledged to pay his poll-tax for the remainder of his years. Underlying this story is the assumption that, had it not been for Bar Hama's enthusiastic gratitude, rabbis were expected to pay their taxes like everyone else.
The principle of rabbinic tax-exemption was accepted in theory by the medieval Jewish halakhic authorities, though there were major disagreements about how to apply it to real-life situations. At the root of the controversy were differing perceptions of the vocation of "rabbi" and how rabbinic functions related to other professional pursuits or to other segments of the populace.
The prevalent norm in many Sepharadic lands was that the rabbinate constituted a professional class whose members were clearly distinguishable from the laity. Reflecting this situation, Rabbi Isaac Alfasi proposed a definition of who qualified as a rabbi for purposes of the tax exemption: "one whose craft is Torah." In its most restrictive interpretation, this criterion excluded any scholar did not pursue talmudic studies on a full-time basis, as well as anyone who had additional sources of income. Rabbi Moses Nahmanides went so far as to stipulate that if a rabbi took payment for providing religious instruction, he would thereby forfeit his tax-exempt status.
However, other Sepharadic authorities were more liberal about extending the tax breaks to rabbis who pursued other occupations, as long as religious scholarship remained their chief vocation. This attitude followed logically from the approach espoused by Maimonides, who castigated any scholar who used the rabbinate as a source of financial gain. Maimonides' view was instrumental in promoting a model of rabbinical vocation according to which scholars, unable to accept payment for their religious activities, were expected to support themselves by pursuing an additional profession.
In the same spirit, Rabbi Meir Abulafia of Toledo cited the talmudic tenet that a life of Torah study, if it is not combined with commitment to a work ethic, will inevitably lack stability. He deduced from this that an extracurricular career is an indispensable component of the rabbinic vocation, and therefore should not weaken his claim to scholarly exemption, as long as his profane activities did not exceed his sacred activities. Rabbi Abulafia insisted that this would remain the case even if the rabbi amassed considerable wealth in his business dealings. A clause to that effect was inserted into official Certificates of Exemption that were issued by some of the Spanish rabbinic authorities.
It will probably come as no surprise to discover that the solemn pronouncements of the rabbis about their entitlement to fiscal privileges were not automatically accepted by the laity and leadership, who would have had to compensate their communities from their own purses.
Evidence of hostility from the laity can sometimes be inferred from incidental comments in the writings of the rabbis. Thus, Rabbi Abulafia himself was so persuasive in persuading a correspondent of his inalienable entitlement to a tax exemption that the latter decided to join him in Toledo, where rabbis seemed to receive more respectful treatment. Upon hearing of this, Abulafia cautiously advised that this might not, after all, be such a good idea, applying to him the prophet Amos's metaphor about a man who flees from a lion only to run into a bear. Evidently, Rabbi Abulafia's outspoken and confident pronouncements about the consideration that was due to rabbis were not grounded in the concrete reality of his own community.
The Jews of medieval Germany and France held different assumptions about the position of the rabbi in the context of Jewish society. For one thing, the successful dissemination of Torah learning among broad segments of their populace was not consistent with the emergence of a distinct rabbinic caste or professional class. Furthermore, Ashkenazic piety was characterized by an exaggerated reverence for the Jewish sages of antiquity. Compared to those legendary titans of yore, few of their own contemporaries had the audacity to classify themselves as "rabbis" in their idealized sense of the title.
At a later stage, it became the practice of Austrian Jews to grant tax exemptions only to the heads of yeshivahs. A prominent scholar explained that his community's reluctance to expand the scope of the privilege was a consequence of the fundamentally nebulous character of Alfasi's criterion "one whose craft is Torah," since it ultimately became a question of individual attitude that could not be measured by objective benchmarks, and could lead to abuses of the system.
This question erupted into a political crisis in the 1560's in Safed, when a communal leader named Rabbi Judah Aberlin tried to reverse the prevailing practice and require the rabbis to pay their share of the community's tax obligations. Shortly after his arrival from Salonika, Aberlin was successful in implementing his policy in his own Ashkenazic community, and tried to persuade the Sepharadic leadership to adopt a similar regulation. However, after three years of his regime, he was outflanked by the concerted opposition of rabbis from Safed and neighbouring lands, who ultimately prevailed in their campaign to overturn his reforms.
Possibly the most extreme dispute over tax exemptions was the one related in the Talmud, about the citizens of third-century Tiberias, who pleaded with the Patriarch Rabbi Judah that the rabbis be required to share in the responsibility for paying the oppressive Roman taxes. When the townspeople's request was denied, half the populace got up and abandoned the city. When the remaining citizens repeated their demand, the Patriarch persisted in his refusal; and they also fled, leaving Tiberias with only one solitary taxpayer, a hapless garment-presser.
When it dawned on him that he would now have to bear the sole responsibility for the city's tax assessment, he also flew the coop.