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Shabbat Parashat Bereishit 5776

P'ninat Mishpat: Changing a Community Tax Assessment

(based on Shut Chatam Sofer, Choshen Mishpat 125)

Case: [There was common function of the Jewish community to collect “taxes” both for paying the government as a group and for the needs of the community, including supporting the poor. While there are some halachic guidelines, each community had its own ways of dealing with the task of assessing and collecting these dues.] When Reuven, who was known to be a rich man, died, 400 gold coins were taken for taxes from his estate, as per the last assessment when he was alive. Reuven’s son-in-law claims that he left only 4,000 coins, so the assessment is too high. Should the assessment be lowered?


Ruling: There are two basic approaches to assessments. The early Sephardim allowed the people in charge to come up with an assessment, without trusting the citizens. Their reasoning was that the government bases their taxes on their assumption of Jewish wealth (they usually exaggerate). Therefore the Jewish collectors, who in effect carry out the king’s word, can follow his system of assessment. The Rosh says that accordingly, the assessment is binding even if it is mistakenly low.

Most Ashkenazi communities follow the halacha that members of a community are considered partners regarding obligations of taxes to the king. Therefore, when there is a question as to how much one has and is capable of paying, he swears that his report of wealth is correct (see Terumat Hadeshen 343; Rama, CM 162:3).

The minhag of communities, accepted by Acharonim, is that if one’s assessment is supposed to stand for a certain number of years, then the assessed tax does not change even if he became poorer or richer since his oath. (In a minority of communities, including Frankfurt, assessments change during their term in the case of a clear and very significant change in financial status.) If one swore that he has much less money than we now find in his possession, there is discussion whether we accept the possibility that he found a large sum of money or otherwise became suddenly enriched after the assessment (there is a slight contradiction within Chavot Yair (57-8)). In any case, after he has died, we do not extract money from the inheritors despite the likelihood that his reporting of his wealth was a lie.

In the case before us, the local practice was set that when one dies, the amount of four years’ of taxes are taken from the estate, and one must not complain about this practice. Soon before his death, Reuven wrote a will that identified wealth of 12,000 coins, which is much more than he reported previously. We will make a claim on behalf of the inheritors that Reuven earned a lot of money between the assessment and the will and we will not penalize retroactively the estate for withholding tax. However, we will obligate the estate for the correct assessment from the time of the will. Although he could have sworn that he made the money after the assessment and the assessment does not change during its duration, since he did not swear, we assume, in regard to the future, what we know – that he did have more money. It would be a good idea to compromise on the matter. The inheritors claim that they found only 4,000 gold coins. They are required to swear about that, although a publicly accepted cherem should be enough.

Although some want to forgive the money, realize that that is at the expense of many impoverished people. Still, if a majority want to forgive some money, it is possible to do so. A minority who want to forgive certainly should not cast aspersions on the majority that want full payment.

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