Heavy Taxes and Empty Pockets
The Bible uses two Hebrew words for “taxes”: mas (or missim in plural) and meches. In this essay we will explore the etymology and meanings of these two words. Afterwards, we will discuss the three Aramaic words found in the Bible to mean “tax”:minda, belo, and halach. And then, three more Aramaic words in the Talmud: karga, arnona, andtaska. We will also trace the etymologies of those words and in doing so we will hone in on their exact meanings.
Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) offers three possibly etymologies for the Hebrew word mas. Firstly, in his work Yerios Shlomo he suggests that the root of mas is the letter SAMECH alone, which denotes “rejection” and “disassociation.” Other words derived from this root include nas (“fleeing”), and ma’us (“disgusting”). He connects “taxes” to “rejection” and “disassociation” because when one pays taxes he “disassociates” himself from that money and gives it over to the authorities.
Secondly, in his work Cheshek Shlomo Rabbi Pappenheim proposes that the root of mas is MEM-SAMECH, which means “melting” or “disintegrating.” He explains that this refers to “taxes” because they melt away one’s assets and cause them to disintegrate.
Thirdly, Rabbi Pappenheim (also in Cheshek Shlomo) explains that the word mas is derived from the root SIN-ALEPH (sa), which refers to “carrying” or “lifting.” This is relevant to “taxes” because they represent a burden which one must “carry.” Interestingly, according to the Oxford English Dictionary the noun tax has two definitions: “a compulsory contribution to state revenue” and “a strain or heavy demand.” If Rabbi Pappenheim is correct, the second meaning is actually the basis for the first.
Although mas is typically translated as “tax,” some scholars argue that a more accurate translation would be “corvée work,” meaning a system of compulsory, unpaid labor or civil service imposed by a sovereign. This meaning of “forced labor” is borne out by the Bible in several places. For example, the Torah terms the Egyptian taskmasters who oversaw the enslaved Jews as sarei missim — “Officers of Missim [the plural of mas]” (Ex. 1:11). Similarly, when King Solomon instituted mandatory conscription of civilians, this levy was called a mas (I Kings 5:27).
The other Biblical Hebrew word that sometimes means tax is meches. It appears six times in the Bible in that sense, with all instances clustered in one chapter (Num. 31:28-41). In that context, meches refers to the consecrated booty from the Jews’ war against the Midianites, which was to be given to
Dr. Hayim Tawil of Yeshiva University argues that the Biblical Hebrew meches is actually a loanword from the Akkadian miksu (“dues” or “tributes”), a word derived from the Akkadian verb makasu (“to collect a share from a rented field, to collect taxes, duty”). However, others have found a Hebrew basis for that word.
Menachem ibn Saruk (920-970) identifies the root of meches as KAF-SAMECH, while Rabbi Yehuda ibn Chayyuj, Rabbi Yonah ibn Janach (990-1050), and Rabbi David Kimchi (1160-1235) — also known as Radak — write that its root is KAF-SAMECH-SAMECH. Either way, these rootsmean “number.” This explains how meches was borrowed to mean “tax” — a rate is usually a function of “numbers.”
Rabbi Pappenheim agrees that the root of meches is KAF-SAMECH, yet argues that the core meaning of KAF-SAMECH is not “number” but “covering.” Another word with the same root — kis (“pocket”) — is a “covered” space into which one puts small items, like coins, to avoid losing them. Thus, the related word meches refers specifically to the type of tax which ends up in the king’s pocket/purse (as opposed to other taxes which are used for public works). In the case of the Jewish People, that King is
The above-cited grammarians point to the Hebrew word michsat (Ex. 12:4) — used to describe the number of individuals collectively offering a single Paschal Lamb — as evidence that the root KAF-SAMECH means “number.” However, Rabbi Pappenheim argues that this too is merely a borrowed usage. He explains that michsat refers to the idea that multiple people pool their money into single pot or “pocket” to purchase the sacrifice.
Now let us examine the Aramaic words for “tax.” The Bible uses these three words when it reports that Cyrus, king of Persia, issued a special exemption releasing the Men of the Great Assembly from paying taxes. They were released from paying minda, belo, and halach (Ezra 7:24) — all Aramaic words.
Rabbi Baruch Avraham Toledano (1825-1917) writes that minda is related to the Hebrew word middah ("measure" or "dimension") since it was the fee imposed as a function of the measurement of one’s property. Belo is an expression of “wearing out” and refers to food which gets digested and "worn out". And halach is related to the word holech ("walking" or "travelling"), and refers to taxes used for the upkeep of transportation infrastructure such as public roads and bridges.
The Talmud (Bava Basra 8a and Nedarim 62b) explains that minda refers to the king’s portion (manat hamelech). This seems to be the Aramaic equivalent of meches (as explained by Rabbi Pappenheim), i.e. a tax for the king’s personal profit.
The second term used in the verse is belo, which the Talmud (there) explains refers to gulgalta money. As is evident from the ensuing discussion in the Talmud, the term gulgalta means the same thing as karga. The Aramaic word karga (derived from the Persian karaka and/or Arabic harag) refers to a “poll tax” or “head tax,” which was a fixed sum that each individual was obligated to pay (see Rashi to Bava Metzia 73b). The word gulgalta is actually an Aramicization of the Hebrew word gulgolet (“skull”), as the capitation tax applied to each individual (i.e. “head”).
The Talmud explains that the third term in the verse, halach, means arnona, which was a “crop tax” levied on farmers. Rashi (to Pesachim 6a, Bava Basra 8a) explains that arnona entailed paying the government a tenth of one’s animals and grain every year. In fact, historians record that in the Roman Empire there was a tax called annona that was used to supply grain and other foodstuffs to the city of Rome. Annona was derived from the Latin word annus (“year,” the source of the English word annual), because it was calculated from the sum total of the year’s harvests.
Alternatively, Rabbi Nosson of Rome in Sefer HaAruch explains that arnona was a meal that each city had to supply to the king or army when they travelled (i.e. halach — “go”) through that city. Rabbeinu Nissim (to Nedarim 62b) offers two ways of fitting this explanation to the word arnona. First, he writes that arnona is Greek for “meal.” Second, he writes that arnona means “partnership,” just like we find that the River Arnon was the border between the Moabites and Emorites (Num. 21:13), effectively joining those two territories. These two explanations are also cited by Maharam Chalavah and Meiri (to Pesachim 6a).
There is another Talmudic term for tax, namely taska, meaning “property tax” (see Rashi to Gittin 58b, Bava Metzia 73b, 108a). Elsewhere, taska means “sack” (Rashi to Megillah 7b) or “basket” (Tosafos to Avodah Zarah 14b). So it seems that its use as a word for property tax is simply a borrowed meaning. In Modern Hebrewtaska is replaced with arnona, which has been redefined to mean “property tax.” Likewise, in Modern Hebrew, mas is the generic word for “tax,” while meches refers specifically to “customs tax.”
We thus have many words which mean tax: mas and meches in Biblical Hebrew; and minda, belo, and halach in Biblical Aramaic; and gulgalta, karga, arnona, and taska in Talmudic Aramaic.
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