Nedarim 62

Should you cheat on your taxes?

Today’s daf has a number of moving meditations on the value and power of Torah. If you haven’t read it yet, I want to encourage you to do so — both because they are beautiful, and because they are not the part of the daf that we’re going to focus on here.

The Talmud today offers several teachings by the great sage Rava on paying taxes. 

Rava said: It is permitted for a Torah scholar to say: I will not pay the head tax, as it is written: It shall not be lawful to impose minda, belo, and halakh upon them (Ezra 7:24). 

Rava points to a statement in the Book of Ezra by the Persian King Artaxerxes, who ordered tax collectors in the province of Yehud (the name for the land of Israel under Persian rule) not to collect three kinds of taxes from “any priest, Levite, singer, gatekeeper, temple servant, or other servant of this House of God.

And what are these three kinds of taxes? 

And Rabbi Yehuda said: Minda is the king’s portion. Belo is the money of the head tax. And halakh is arnona (corvee labor).

Rava here is making an argument based on two analogies. First, the Sasanian government under which he lived is analogous to the Persian government that ruled hundreds of years earlier. And second, Torah scholars are analogous to the priests, singers and others who served in the Second Temple. Given these parallels, Rava allows Torah scholars to “conscientiously object” to paying taxes to the Sasanians. But that’s not all Rava allows: 

It is permitted for a Torah scholar to say: I am a servant of fire. I will not pay the head tax. 

The Sasanian elite who ruled Babylonia in Rava’s time were Zoroastrians. Where Jews have synagogues, Zoroastrians had (and still have) fire temples staffed by fire priests. And apparently, the Sasanian government exempted fire priests from paying the head tax. 

Still, rabbis are not fire priests, and Zoroastrianism is not Judaism. So is Rava really saying you can lie about being a fire priest to get out of paying your taxes? The medieval commentary known as Tosafot doesn’t think so. Instead, it suggests that Rava is saying that you can lie and say you are a servant ofa fire priest — someone who is part of their household. And why is it permitted to say such a thing? The Gemara explains:

He is saying it to chase a lion from him.

Apparently the Gemara imagines the Sasanian tax collectors like wild animals, dangerous and ready to attack. To scare them off, Rava says that Torah scholars are permitted to lie and say they are servants of the fire, whatever that means.

But before we all decide to no longer pay our taxes, it’s worth putting this page of Talmud in conversation with another one, from Baba Metzia 86a. There, the Sasanian government holds Rabbah bar Nahmani responsible for significant losses in tax revenue. I don’t want to spoil the details, but the story ends with Rabbah bar Nahmani on the run from the government, and eventually dead. Just because you can lie to a government that is violent or threatening, doesn’t mean you should — or that it will turn out alright for you in the end. 

Read all of Nedarim 62 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on December 26th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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