Bava Batra 8: Come On In

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

“We force him [the resident of a courtyard] to contribute to the building of the guard’s gate” (Bava Batra 7b). When we think of a guard at the entranceway to a courtyard - or in the lobby of an apartment building – we think of a security guard hired to protect the property and its residents. While this may be a key function, our rabbis feared that a guard’s gate would serve other, less desirable purposes.  “Do you mean to say a guard’s house is something positive?” the Gemara wonders, questioning the requirement to make someone pay for something that does little to enhance the quality of life in the courtyard. The Gemara goes on to explain that whether a gate is beneficial or not depends on where the gatehouse is placed, if it has a door, if the door has a lock and where that lock may be.

Strangely, the Gemara never actually explains why any of the above makes a difference in determining if the gate is something positive or not. Presumably doors, locks, and location are all factors in determining the best place from which to secure the courtyard. Yet the commentaries, as far as I can tell, unanimously explain that the concern of the Gemara is the ease or difficulty with which the poor will be able to enter the courtyard or even to have their cries for help heard. The Sages were concerned that the building of fences, walls, storehouses and the like might inure us to the cries of the poor.

In an era when being poor often meant that one had nothing to eat or clothes to wear, the Sages were surely not going to make someone pay for a guard house to keep out the poor. 

What begins as a discussion about walls and courtyards segues into a discussion about tzedakah, and many of the Talmudic discussions of tzedakah are found in the first chapter of Bava Batra. Judaism sees all areas of life interconnected, as vehicles for serving G-d and man. Ethics and ritual, our business dealings and charitable giving, fasting and feasting, the synagogue and the sports field, holiness and happiness, the marketplace and matza are all different sides of our multi-faceted but singular worship of G-d.

Just as we force members of a courtyard, or a city, to contribute to its physical upkeep, we force these same members to contribute to the physical needs of the poor[1]. “Rav Nachman said [in the name of] Rava bar Avuha: One may take a collateral for tzedakah even on Friday afternoon” (Bava Batra 8b). As Rashi explains, the excuse that I’m too busy on Friday, call me on Monday, is not accepted when there are people need help now. What use is preparing for Shabbat if the needs of the poor have yet to be taken care of?

This idea is reflected in the opening Mishna of masechet Shabbat, which discusses the prohibition of carrying from a public domain to a private one or conversely, from a private domain to a public one. Tellingly and as we discussed here, the Mishna teaches the prohibition of carrying through the case of a poor person standing outside in the public domain, begging for some food from a homeowner relaxing in his private home. No matter how strict one might be in observing the ritual of Shabbat - “I would never trust the eiruv” - it is greatly diminished if we forget the poor (see Rambam Laws of Yom Tov 6:18).

As in all public tax systems, there are competing needs that must be balanced. Because of the special sensitivity due to orphans, the Gemara rules “that we do not impose charitable obligations on orphans even for the redemption of captives” (Bava Batra 8a), despite the fact that one may sell a sefer Torah to redeem captives. Apparently, being an orphan is akin to being a captive – with no hope of return to one’s original family. Also exempt from many taxes were rabbinic scholars, a notion that exists in many tax systems that offer a parsonage or a clergy exemption from taxes.

Unique amongst countries in the world, the United States taxes based on citizenship, with all American citizens taxed on their worldwide income regardless of where they may be residing. To the best of my knowledge, all other countries tax only those living within their borders, be they as residents or non-resident aliens. I am not even sure if there was the concept of citizenship in the Talmudic world. “And how long must one be living in the city to be considered part of the city” for tax purposes? “Twelve months; and if he bought a home, he is considered a resident immediately.” Little has changed over the last 2,000 years.

The Gemara recognizes that not all taxes are equal (though there is only one taxpayer), with some taxes due immediately and others over time.  “Thirty days for the daily food bank, three months for welfare, six months for the clothing drive, nine months for the burial fund and twelve months for the walls of the city.”

Being obligated to pay taxes tells us little about how much each person must pay. The Gemara wonders whether taxes are collected based on population, with each person paying an equal share, or based on wealth, with the well-to-do paying more. Should taxes be based on ability to pay or the benefit each receives? While providing general guidelines, Jewish law was reticent to codify detailed laws of taxation policy, leaving it up to each community to decide what works best for them. 

The more things change, the more things stay the same.


[1] The mitzva of tzedakah has a dual component, a private one where one gives to the causes that are dear to one, and a public one where the community imposes an obligation to fund communal needs. This is similar to our tax system where taxes are imposed to pay for certain needs, and the private sector is called upon to provide much more. This partnership is acknowledged through the system of tax credits and deductions in which the government funds half, and at times up to 75% (at least in Canada), of our charitable giving.