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By: Reb Yechezkel Khayyat
The Gemora presents the tax exemptions accorded to Torah scholars. The Rishonim discuss the parameters of these tax exemptions.
Who is Exempt?
The Rosh says that only one who for whom toraso umnaso – his Torah learning is his profession, is exempt. The Rosh explains that even if one learns much Torah and is proficient in Torah, if he spends most of his time working, and less of his time learning, he is not exempt. However, even if one works, if he works only as much as is necessary to support himself and his family, and constantly returns to his Torah study when he is not working, he is exempt.
The Rosh further clarifies (Responsa 15:8) that this exemption applies equally to a Torah scholar who is wealthy, since the exemption is a function of the Torah study, not poverty.
Finally, the Rosh states that if one who studies Torah is not diligent in his performance of mitzvos, he is not considered a Torah scholar who is exempt from tax.
The Rama (YD 243:2) quotes the Terumas Hadeshen (342), who further requires that the Torah scholar be well versed in all the standard Torah sources.
The Shach (HM 163:14) quotes Sefer Chasidim that limits the exemption to one who studies at all times, to the exclusion of any work, but says we do not rule like this.
From what are they Exempt?
The Ramban and Ran state that Torah scholars are only exempt from communal taxes, since they can claim that only the other members of the community are responsible for the existence of these taxes and their payment (as Rebbe stated regarding the tax levied on Teveria). However, if the tax is imposed on each person individually, even Torah scholars must pay.
The Rosh and Rambam (Talmud Torah 6:10), however, disputes this position, and state that Torah scholars are exempt from all types of tax, whether imposed communally or individually. The Rosh points out that Rav Nachman makes a categorical statement that obligating a Torah scholar in a tax is a violation of all sections of Torah, and the Gemora applies this to karga, which was a poll tax assessed on each individual. These indicate that even individual taxes levied on Torah scholars are the responsibility of the community, and not the Torah scholars.
The Shulchan Aruch (YD 243:2) rules like the Rosh and Rambam. See Tzitz Eliezer 2:25 and Yabia Omer HM 7:10 for a detailed discussion of these parameters, and their applicability in contemporary society.
A Raven and Dog
When Rabbi Yonasan, Rebbe’s student, asked for food from Rebbe, he told him that he should feed him, just as Hashem feeds the raven and the dog. Rashi explains that Hashem specifically tailored the physiology of these animals to account for their lack of food. A dog typically does not have much food, so Hashem ensured that it spends three days digesting its food (Shabbos 155b), while a raven does not have feed its children, so Hashem provides them with insects in their waste, which they can eat to be nourished. Tosfos (8a kekelev) explains that the verse in Tehilim refers to both these animals. The verse says that Hashem is nosain liv’haima lachma (gives to an animal its food), livnai oraiv asher yikra’u (to the children of the raven that call out). The Gematria of behaima (animal) is 52, the same as kelev (dog).
Like the Stars
The Gemora explained that the verse that states that matzdikei harabim – those that bring merit to the community are like the stars, is referring to those who educate children in Torah.
The Ben Yehoyada points out that the appropriateness of the metaphor. Although stars appear to us much smaller than the sun, they are actually much larger and more powerful. Similarly, although those who teach seemingly trivial subjects, such as the basics of reading and writing, appear to not be as lofty as those who study and teach Torah at a much more advanced level, they are actually more exalted than others, since they teach Torah to children who are pure and untainted by sin.