There is nothing as certain as death and taxes, so the saying goes. Almost equally certain is the phenomenon of the living trying to avoid or evade taxes. In law school they teach you that while tax avoidance is legal, tax evasion is illegal. But the difference between avoidance and evasion is often difficult to define. Witness the recent tax shelters structured by national accounting firms and bolstered by the opinions of venerable law firms, only to be shot down by the IRS. At the end of the day, the only reliable distinction between tax avoidance and tax evasion is what the authorities decide post facto.
The issue is as old as money itself and it is one that every legal system struggles with. Halacha, to the extent it is a legal system – and it is much more than that – struggles with it too.
The Talmud laments the fact that contemporary generations look for ways to escape paying taxes whereas their predecessors looked for ways to pay them. The Talmud illustrates this point in connection with taxes, known as terumot and ma’asarot, or tithes, paid by the people of Israel to the kohanim, the priests. These tithes were only required to be separated and paid to the kohen in respect of crops which were delivered to the crop owner’s storehouse through the main entrance but not in respect of crops delivered through an abnormal route, such as, through a skylight in the roof.
Whereas earlier generations of farmers would have their crops delivered through the main entrance and pay the tithes that such delivery triggered, later generations of farmers would have them delivered through the skylight and thereby avoid the taxes. Although the rabbis ruled this terumah avoidance device legal, they criticized those who took advantage of it.
Other devices employed to circumvent other obligations were ruled illegal. Such was the case with certain devices designed to free the kohen of the obligation to offer up, as a sacrifice, the bechor behemah tehorah he received from the people of Israel.
Needless to say, the kohen who received the bechor animal would be financially better off if he could have unrestricted personal use of the bechor without having to offer it up as a korban. If there were some way to free the bechor of its hekdesh status and from the obligation to offer it up as a sacrifice, the kohen would benefit.
First of all, he would not have to take care of the bechor until it was fit for a korban. Second, he would be able to slaughter it anywhere and not be confined to slaughtering it in the Temple. Third, he would be able to feed it to anyone he desired and not just to his immediate family. Fourth, he would be able to eat it anywhere rather than being confined to eating it in Jerusalem. Fifth, he would be able to sell it to any willing buyer, Jewish or non-Jewish.
If only the kohen could engineer that the bechor develop a moom, a blemish, that would render it unacceptable as a korban, he could solve his problem. The blemish would render the animal ineligible as a korban, but yet not treif, so that the kohen would be able to enjoy the entire animal instead of having to lose the benefit of part of it by burning it on the altar.
It would not be difficult to achieve this because even a slight blemish, such as a cut lip or a slit ear, would disqualify the animal as a korban. What if the kohen placed a basket of food behind some barbed wire, enticing the animal to go for the food and cut itself in the process? Or what if he could convince a non-Jew to injure the animal for him?