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The custom of taxing a population at a certain amount per head dates back to very ancient times. The first time such a tax is mentioned is in Ex. xxx. 12-16, where it is stated that every male "from twenty years old and above" shall give, as "a ransom for his soul," half a shekel for an offering unto the Lord. There were three other annual contributions obligatory on males, the amounts being proportioned according to their means (comp. Deut. xvi. 16-17). Although the contribution of half a shekel was required only at the time of the numbering of the children of Israel, the rabbinical law makes it an annual tax. There are, however, in the Bible traces of a regular poll-tax. Ezekiel, remonstrating against exactions, pointed out that the shekel was twenty gerahs (Ezek. xlv. 9-12). This shows that in Ezekiel's time the princes imposed a greater exchange value on the shekel than the prescribed twenty gerahs (comp. Ex. l.c.).

Shekel Tax.

Nehemiah reduced the contribution from half a shekel to one-third of a shekel, which was used for the maintenance of the Temple and for the purchase of the sacrifices (Neh. x. 33-34 [A. V. 32-33]). The Rabbis also, probably on the basis of the passage in Nehemiah, declared that the prescribed half-shekel contribution should be employed for the purchase of all the sacrifices necessary in the service of the Temple and for the maintenance of the Temple and the fortifications of Jerusalem (see Shekel in Jew. Encyc., vol. xi., pp. 257, 258). Besides this contribution for religious purposes, the Jews were required at various times to pay poll-taxes of unknown amounts to their rulers. An Inscription of Sennacherib shows that he imposed a per capita tax on all his subjects; the Jews paid the same tax when they were under Syrian control. In the time of the Second Temple the Greeks, particularly the Seleucidan rulers, apparently exacted a capitation tax from the Jews (Josephus, "Ant." xiii. 2, § 3; comp. I Macc. x. 29); Wilcken ("Griechische Ostraka," i. 245 et seq.), however, denies that the capitation tax existed before Augustus. From the reign of the latter the Romans exacted from the Jews among other taxes one known as the "tributum capitis." The Jews rose against this tax, which was both ignominious and burdensome.

The historians do not agree as to the contribution per capita under Herod, against whose oppressive taxations the Jews complained to the Roman emperor ("Ant." xvii. 11, § 2). Josephus does not mention any census which the Romans took in connection with a "tributum capitis" at the time of Herod. Still, Wieseler ("Synopse," pp. 100 et seq.) and Zumpt ("Geburtsjahr Christi," pp. 196 et seq.) maintain that such a census was taken at that time, and that it was the cause of the sedition stirred up by the scribes Judas, son of Saripheus, and Matthias, son of Margolothus ("Ant." xvii. 6, § 2). According to these two historians, while the other taxes were levied by Herod himself in order to meet the expenses of internal administration of the province the capitation tax was paid into the Roman treasury.

Under the Romans.

In 70 C.E. Titus, being informed that the Jews had paid half a shekel per capita to the Temple, declared that it should thereafter be paid into the imperial treasury. This practise continued up to the reign of Hadrian, when the Jews obtained permission to apply the halfshekel to the maintenance of their patriarch (comp. Basnage, "Histoire des Juifs," iv., ch. iv.). Nevertheless, it appears from Appian ("Syrian War," § 50) that Hadrian imposed on all the Jews of his empire a heavy poll-tax. It is further stated that the contribution of a half-shekel continued to be paid to the Roman emperor, that it was remitted only under Julian the Apostate, and that Theodosius reimposed it. This poll-tax existed during the Middle Ages under the name of "der goldene Opferpfennig." In the Orient the Jews paid the half-shekel for the maintenance of the exilarch, and Pethahiah of Regensburg relates that he found at Mosul six thousand Jews, each of whom paid annually a gold piece, one-half of which was used for the maintenance of the two rabbis, while the other half was paid to the emir (Depping, "Juden im Mittelalter," p. 138).

The age at which the Jews became liable to the poll-tax varied in different countries. In Germany every Jew and Jewess over twelve years old paid one gulden. In Spain and England, in 1273, the age was ten years. The amount varied in different epochs. In Anjou the Jews paid ten "sols tournois" as a poll-tax; on certain occasions the poor Jews claimed to be unable to pay this poll-tax; in these cases its collection was left to the community, which was responsible to the government for 1,000individuals, even when the number of Jews in the city was smaller. In England the tallage for crown revenue occasionally took the form of a poll-tax. In Italy, according to Judah Minz (Responsa, No. 42), a poll-tax was imposed on the community by its chiefs to the amount of half the communal expenses, the other half being raised by assessment. In Turkey, in the fifteenth century, the Jews were subject to a light poll-tax, payable only by males over twelve years of age. To defray congregational expenses, the Jewish communities until recently assessed equally every head of a household ("rosh bayit") in addition to collecting a tax on property (Erach). A similar tax was demanded from every family by the Austrian government (see Familianten Gesetz).

  • Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, pp. 40 et seq.;
  • Depping, Les Juifs dans le Moyen Age, German transl., pp. 24, 28, 138, 189;
  • Grätz, Gesch. 3d ed., iii. 9, 260; ix. 30;
  • Nübling, Judengemeinden des Mittelalters, pp. xxxvi. et seq., 261 et seq., 435 et seq.;
  • Reynier, Economie Politique et Rurale des Arabes et des Juifs, pp. 311 et seq., Geneva, 1820;
  • Schürer, Gesch. 3d ed., i. 229 et seq., 529 et passim.
D. M. Sel.
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