Leshon Ima, Mother Tongue with Dr. Rachel Zohar Dulin, Special To The Dayton Jewish Observer
If it’s April, we can’t forget that taxes are due soon. Never mind that we are entering the time of sfirat haomer, the counting of days between Pesach and Shavuot. For many of us, counting the days until April 15 is at the center of concern. To alleviate the stress, let us look at the words for taxes in Hebrew.
In the Bible, there are a few words which refer to taxes. For example, maaser (tithe), maset (gift), mincha (offering), and meckes (levy) all indicate that collecting taxes from the people was a practice imposed on the population from the very early days of history in order to carry the tasks of the state or to fill up the coffers of conquering forces.
From the biblical narrative, it is not clear how taxes were collected in Israel. However, we do know that the kings had special officers in the court responsible for collecting taxes. And archeological findings support the assertion that there were systematic lists and measurements pertaining to the collection of taxes.
To wit, jars found in Israel with the inscription lamelech, literally to the king, presuppose that agricultural produce such as oil or wine were collected in these containers designated as taxes for the king.
An interesting biblical word in this context is maas. In most cases maas means forced labor. It is close to the Aramaic misa and the Egyptian ms meaning to bring or sacrifice. The word appears 23 times in the Bible.
In a few places, maas means monetary tax, but in most cases it indicates that forced labor, as tax, was a practice imposed on the population by either the ruling kings or by a conquering force. This kind of taxation was called maas oved, laborer tax.
It is not clear when maas (misim in plural) received its modern meaning of taxation and fees imposed by governmental authorities. The list of these misim is long. Maas hacknasah is income tax, maas nesiot is travel tax, and maas motarot means luxury tax, and so it goes.
It becomes clear that each one of us is a meshalem misim, payer of taxes, but some of us are paturim mimaas, exempt from tax.
I must mention the Hebrew phrase maas sephatayim literally meaning lips tax, figuratively, lip service.
It is interesting that in Hebrew the insincere words of compliance are rooted in taxation. I hope none of us will ever need to pay this maas and may the misim we are paying be put to good use.
Dr. Rachel Zohar Dulin is a professor of biblical literature at Spertus College in Chicago and an adjunct professor of Bible and Hebrew at New College of Florida.