Only a team of octopuses could write the entire gamut of Jewish taxation. Instead, we’ll review the highlights of a few instances of unfair Jewish taxation. According to historians, an early example of this genre may have helped convince the early Christians to break off from the Jewish people, so as to avoid taxation. We will also see some later infamous, fiscal examples such as the Tolerance Tax, the Korobka tax and the travel tax.
The Fiscus Judaicus
One of the earliest unfair Jewish taxes, the Roman Fiscus Judaicus (Jewish Tax), was not only a financial liability for the Jewish people but also a vicious twist of the sword in the wound of a downed enemy. Shortly after the churbon, Emperor Vespasian informed the Jews that he had a substitute for the machatzis hashekel, the equivalent of two Roman dinars, which every Jew between twenty and fifty had been faithfully paying to the temple treasury for hundreds of years. The annual funds were to be diverted to the idolatrous TempleCapitolinus of Rome that Vespasian’s followers had burnt down in 69 CE during a Civil War. Vespasian rapidly rebuilt the temple and dedicated the lavish substitute in CE 75. This burnt down in CE 80 and was replaced by an even more lavish fourth structure that survived for four hundred years.
Josephus hints at the tax in the Jewish War (ch. 6). “He [Vespasian] also laid a tribute upon the Jews wheresoever they were, and enjoined every one of them to bring two drachmai every year into the Capitol, as they used to pay the same to the temple at Yerushalayim.”
The Roman historian, Cassius Dio, specifies where the money actually went: “From that time forth it was ordered that the Jews who continued to observe their ancestral customs should pay an annual tribute of two drachmai to Jupiter Capitoline.”
Documental evidence of this tax was discovered in the form of tax receipts dug up in the town Apollinopolis Magna in Egypt. These indicate that unlike the machatzis hashekel that was only paid by male adults between twenty and fifty, this tax was even paid by children from three years upwards and by women.
When Emperor Nerva came to the Roman throne in 96, he immediately minted coins bearing the mysterious slogan, “Fisci Ivdaici Calvmnia, ‘the removal of the wrongful accusation of the fiscus Judaicus.‘” To what wrongful accusation does this refer? Some historians theorize that until his time, the Romans had insisted that Christians belonged to the Jewish people and forced them to pay the tax as well. Now, this wrongful accusation was removed. If this theory is correct, exemption of Christians from this tax was part of the important process of disabusing people of the notion that Christians were members of a Jewish sect.
When was the Fiscus Judaicus abolished? Although no one knows for sure, a likely contender for the honor is Emperor Julian (360-363) who liked Jews, disliked Christians, and granted permission to rebuild the Bais Hamikdosh. In one letter, Julian discusses unfair Jewish taxes and his efforts to annul them.
“By far the most burdensome thing in the yoke of your slavery, even more than in times past, has been the fact that you were subjected to unauthorized ordinances and had to contribute an untold amount of money to the accounts of the treasury,” he wrote. “Of this I used to see instances with my own eyes, and I have learned of more, by finding the records which are preserved against you. Moreover, when a tax was about to be levied on you again I prevented it, and compelled the impiety of such obloquy to cease here; and I threw into the fire the records against you that were stored in my desks.”
Unfortunately, there is little doubt that most of Jews’ onerous taxes were restored after Julian’s death.
The Fiscus Judaicus was reintroduced in 1342 under the moniker of Der Goldene Opferpfennig by Ludwig the Bavarian. He and other leaders of the Holy Roman Empire of central Europe figured that as heirs of ancient Rome, they were just as entitled to the ancient TempleTax as their forebears.
Another unfair tax paid by Jews was the Tolerance Tax (Toleranzgebührer) Jews paid for the privilege of a host country tolerating their presence. Empress Maria Theresa instated such a tax in 1747, charging Jews money for the privilege of remaining in the Holy Roman Empire. At first, Jews fought down the amount from 50,000 gulden a year to 20,000, and after much complaining the queen relieved Jews of upper Hungary from the tax altogether. Over the years, however, the Tolerance tax increased from 20,000 gulden to 160,000 gulden.
Jews also paid tolerance taxes to Christian colleges in return for “protection” from their riotous scholars. Without such a tax, students felt free to insult Jewish passers-by on the streets and to frequently invade Jewish quarters where they instituted pogroms. Most such disorders were engineered by the pupils of the Academy of Cracow and the Jesuit schools in Posen, Lemberg, Vilna, and Brest. To protect themselves, many Jewish communities paid an annual kozubales tax to rectors of these schools, and this tax was even recognized by common law. The tax didn’t always work. In 1664, the Jews of Lemberg were subjected to a bloody pogrom by the pupils of the Cathedral school and the Jesuit Academy of that city despite their faithful payment of the tax. This resulted in about a hundred Jews dead, a large number of demolished houses, and several desecrated shuls.
Rulers sometimes invented their own rules ad hoc to squeeze more money out of their Jewish subjects. An early maskil recorded in his memoirs how the great Polish magnate, Prince Radzivil, once desecrated a church while in a state of inebriety. “Next morning when he was sober,” he writes, “the clergy brought to his mind the misdeed he had committed the day before. ‘Eh!’ said the Prince, ‘we will soon make that good.’ Thereupon he issued a command to the Jews of the place to provide at their own expense fifty stone of wax for burning in the church. The poor Jews were therefore obliged to bring a sin offering for the desecration of a Christian Church by an orthodox Catholic Christian.”
The Korobka Tax
In Russia and other European countries, kosher meat was surcharged the infamous, hated Korobka tax. Korobka means box, alluding to the special box where Jews deposited the tax when taking animals to a shochet. The Jewish Encyclopedia of 1905 described this tax as part of the more general Basket Tax. This, it writes, is “the most burdensome and annoying of the special taxes imposed upon the Jews of Russia by the government.”
This edict, one of the legacies inherited by the Russian government from the Catholic monasteries, was issued Dec. 31, 1844. The tax was levied on every head of cattle killed for kosher meat, on every kosher fowl, and on every pound of meat sold in the market.
The Korobka tax was only part of a more comprehensive Basket-Tax that taxed old-fashioned wearing apparel, such as the old Polish caftan, the skull-cap, and women’s head-gear and wigs.
Leased by the government to the highest bidder, the Basket Tax was always a source of annoyance and corruption. As one person of those times wrote: “In every town the Czar stationed a Jewish official, a desherdnik, whose business it was to collect the tax, and you can well imagine what sort of Jew that would be. It was an important post for a Jew in Russia; like here a policeman, but one also had to be like a policeman, a villain, a murderer, to rise so high. One had to be able to tear the flesh from living human beings.”
Part of the tax was devoted to the maintenance of Jewish schools, for the transportation of Jewish agriculturists to Jewish colonies, and other communal needs.
Jews were commonly taxed for merely passing through towns. In an unusual memoir once cited in an earlier article, Moses Porges-Spiro described how difficult it was for Jews to travel in Germany and Austria in the early 1800s, but hints at a dawn of tolerance.
“Around midday I arrived in Dresden,” he writes. “Upon arrival I suffered unpleasantness and insult. I had to pay Jew tax. For the privilege of being born a Jew, just about everywhere in Germany one had to pay body duty, just like the dear cattle… Mr. Jonathan Eibenschuetz… procured a passport showing that I was a Saxon subject, so that I would no longer have to pay the miserable Jew tax… I was not permitted to go through Leipzig [due to being a Jew]. A policeman escorted me around the town to the road to Weimar. I trudged along that road with difficulty. Tortured by pain and hunger, I lay down in the road feeling discouraged and weak… The next afternoon I arrived at the gates of Erfurt. In those days it had an Austrian garrison. Here I was stopped and ordered to pay two florin Jew Tax… Finally the tax collector acceded to my request to be taken to see the City Captain… I explained to him how unjust it was to demand two florin tax off a journey-man just traveling through, simply because he happened to be of the Jewish faith. He replied that that was the law of the land. I said to him, ‘A tax-collector may say that, but he, as an enlightened high official, would have to admit that this tax is meant for Jews who trade and do business, but not for transient, poor, young, journey-men, etc.’ The City Captain kept insisting. Then the Baroness [the captain was visiting] spoke up, and said in French, ‘The young man is right. It would be cruel to demand such a considerable payment, which is so intolerant.’ Then the City Captain gave me a written document that exempted me from all such taxes.”
The abandonment of Jewish taxes hinted at in this episode was a corollary to the granting of civil rights to Jews throughout Europe during the 19th century. Although official Jewish taxation no longer exists, a narrow interpretation of the principle of separation between religion and state still saddles observant Jews with vast educational expenses not borne by the average John Doe. The fight for fiscal justice is not yet over.
(Sources: Leo W. Schwarz, Memoirs of My People, Schoken Books, New York, 1963. Reminiscences by Moses Porges-Spiro, 1781-1870. Jewish Encyclopedia, Funk and Wagnalls, New York, 1906.)