Jewish law is pretty comprehensive. From civil wrongs to criminal misconduct to communal religious norms to personal behavior, there’s a whole lot of guidance on a whole lot of topics. But what about laws not made by God — laws of the countries where Jews live? Are Jews obliged to obey them, and if so, why?
Spilling over from the previous page, today’s mishnah states that a person may take a false vow to a tax collector about the ownership of produce in one’s house to avoid paying. The Gemara is puzzled by this:
But didn’t Shmuel say that the law of the kingdom is the law?
We see here a principle — in Aramaic, dina d’malchuta dina — that local law is binding. This phrase pops up with some regularity throughout the Talmud: once here, once in Tractate Gittin as we’ll see in about six months, and many times in the first three tractates of Seder Nezikin. So the Gemara is puzzled: If Shmuel says that you have to obey the law of the country in which you live, how can it be acceptable to lie to a tax collector?
That’s because this principle comes with limitations:
Rav Hinnana said that Rav Kahana said that Shmuel said: The mishnah is referring to a tax collector who has no fixed amount.
A sage of the school of Rabbi Yannai said: The mishnah is referring to a tax collector who establishes himself as such independently.
The Gemara carves out exceptions for specific kinds of tax collectors who are most likely to act illegally. Citing Rav Kahana and Shmuel, Rav Hinnana says that a person can vow falsely to a tax collector who collects the tax arbitrarily, or, as Rashi interprets it, a tax collector who just takes whatever amount they want. Similarly, the unnamed sage following Rabbi Yannai exempts independent, rogue tax collectors, who are basically just self-appointed thugs acting “without the king’s knowledge,” according to the Rosh. In these cases, dina d’malchuta dina doesn’t apply, and you have no obligation to be honest with them just as they, the text implies, aren’t being entirely honorable with you.
In later halakhic literature, limitations on this principle take on a life of their own. Writing around the year 1100, Yosef Halevi ibn Migash states that dina d’malchuta dina applies only when the law in question is applied evenly and equally to all of the land’s inhabitants, a requirement echoed in the Mishneh Torah and Shulchan Aruch. Some rabbis reject laws that interfere in Jewish ritual practice or communal decisions. Others say the principle does not hold in the land of Israel, as “all of the people Israel are partners in owning the land of Israel, and the king has no more right to it than any other person.” Writing in the 16th century, Samuel de Modena even argues that laws passed by democratic governments may be ignored because dina d’malchuta dina applies “only with regards to a king,” and independent legislative bodies are the reflection of “a base people, just like locusts have no king.”
Of course, the rabbis’ ability to ignore the coercive power of the state when they disagreed with its laws fluctuated over time. But the principle of dina d’malchuta dina — and the belief that there are limitations to governmental authority — has stayed with us over time.
Read all of Nedarim 28 on Sefaria.