By Rabbi Yosef Fund
For decades, every major presidential candidate has released his or her tax records. While it is not a legal requirement, this tradition is intended to shed light on whether a candidate attempts to take advantage of the tax structure, and is often a sticking point on the campaign trail.
“For the last 30 to 40 years, every candidate for president has released their tax returns, and I think Donald Trump should as well,” Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, told Business Insider in a recent interview.
Over the past several months, Trump has resisted calls to release his returns, citing legal advice to wait until the IRS completes an audit of his records. On the other side of the aisle, Hillary Clinton, potential presidential nominee of the Democratic Party, was reluctant to release a different set of records. Mrs. Clinton held out for quite some time before she was forced to release her email records, many of which included private information that the public demanded to know.
In this article we will examine the right of the public to review the records of officials in a position of power and the duty of candidates or appointees for public office to provide such information – according to Halacha.
Halacha requires one to act in a way that allows others to trust his sincerity and not suspect him. We find this requirement especially regarding one who has access to the public’s resources. The Mishna in Shekalim1 states that the one who would enter the room where the Shekalim were kept was not allowed to wear shoes or anything similar in order to avoid suspicion that he may have hid Shekalim on himself. The Mishna explains this requirement“as a person must satisfy others just as he must satisfy Hashem, as it says2, ‘and you should be innocent before G-d and before Yisroel’, and it says3, ‘and you shall find grace and good favor in the eyes of G-d and man’. Similarly, the Tosefta4 writes: “Tzedakka collectors may not separate from each other (but rather must collect funds in pairs, to avoid suspicion). If a friend offers [the Tzedakka collector] money that he is owed, or even if he finds money on the way – he may not take it”.
The Sages praised the families of those who baked the Lechem HaPanim that none of their children was ever found with white bread, lest it be said that they were partaking from the communally-owned Lechem HaPanim. Similarly, the families that produced the Ketores did not perfume themselves for the same reason.5
Faithful Public Servants
There is a Gemara6 that seems to contradict the above mentioned Mishnah. The Gemara quotes a Beraisa that says that we must not call to account the collectors of Tzedakka, nor the treasurers of Hekdesh. According to the Gemara there is no explicit scriptural proof for this, however, there is support for this idea, as it is written7 (regarding the craftsmen who renovated the first Bais HaMikdash): ‘they would not take an account of the people who received the silver, to give those who did the work, because they did so faithfully’. Based on this, the Shulchan Aruch rules that those who strictly collect communal alms are to be trusted and are not required to offer an accounting8, although it is preferred that they do.9
In order to understand this seeming contradiction, Rav Chaim Kanievsky10 שליט“א suggests that perhaps in the case of those who are accessing theShekalim it is impossible for the public to ascertain their honesty, Therefore, they are required to do whatever they can to prevent possible suspicion of their actions. However, in the case of alms solicitors, it is possible for others to examine their accounts if they wish to do so, therefore, they are not strictly required to offer an accounting.
Suffering Suspicion to Prevent Humiliation
Another limitation on this principle is found in Sefer Chassidim11, who writes that one must be “innocent before Yisroel – but not all Yisroel”. The specific example given is where revealing the identity of a Tzeddaka recipient would cause him humiliation. In such a case, the treasurer should bear the humiliation of others’ suspicion rather than causing embarrassment to the recipient. It is interesting to note that the Sefer Chassidim specifically writes that this is a case where the treasurer received approval from the communal officers to distribute funds to this specific individual.
Historic Overview of Community Records
Jewish communities over the last several centuries often kept records of communal edicts and affairs. Many of these records have been lost, but some have been preserved and even published. These records often reflect a concern that communal servants avoid any conflict of interest, undue influence, and in general be above reproach. There is also concern with public accountability and public record keeping. We will mention several communal edicts to this effect, all taken from the communal records of the city of Poznan, Poland12 (also known as Posen, and belonging at various time to Prussia and Germany). Worthy of note is the level of detail found in these edicts.
In the year 5456 (1696), there is a record of a requirement that communal officers, tax assessors, public servants etc. take an oath to execute their duties faithfully. [This is similar to what is described in Divrei HaYamim13 where the officers and fighters who served King David gave their hand in assurance that they would faithfully serve his son, King Shlomo14]. Many of the edicts also direct that tax assessors not socialize during the days that they are engaged in their work. Apparently this was to prevent requests for favorable assessments. As an example, the following expression is found in the Poznan records in the year 5446 (1686): “It is readily apparent, the destruction that results when the assessor mingles in the street, and the scripture writes ‘you should be innocent before G-d and before Yisroel’, therefore, to prevent gossiping tongues, it is established with full force that after taking their oath the assessors should not walk in the streets and should certainly not interrupt their work”.
Much later in the year 5521 (1761) it is recorded that, “Although there is a presumption of innocence, and certainly as regards to communal trustees, nevertheless, to avoid wagging tongues and to fulfil what is written ‘you should be innocent before G-d and before Yisroel, the officers of the community have established that none of the trustees should sign any account alone, only two together.”
In year 5522 (1762) there is the following inscription, “In the scriptures it is written ‘you should be innocent before G-d and before Yisroel’, and so, to avoid wagging tongues regarding the accounts, the following three, R’ Hirsch Gabai, the son of Selicond Katz – R’ Itzik Gabbai, and R’ Tudros Dayan Munk, have been chosen to oversee the communal records and accounts. Every month a minimum of two of these three must examine the accounts. Although we assume faithfulness, nevertheless, when it is possible to verify we must do so. The trustee must sign on the accounts, but only in the presence of all three trustees and two officers.”
In the year 5523 (1763) the Poznan community decided to revert to what is described as the older, original system whereby assessments were made publicly, unlike the later procedure where the assessments were done in privacy. The older system is described as “Minhag Yisroel Torah” – the customs of Am Yisroel are considered as laws of the Torah.
Avoiding Nepotism and Favoritism
In addition to all of the various suspicions that are reflected in these records, there also seems to be a particular worry about impartiality of assessors toward relatives. In the year 5475 (1715) it is recorded that the assessors were directed to swear that they must inform the other assessors if the one they are asked to assess happens to be a relative. They were also not allowed to accept any input from one person regarding another. Furthermore, they were required to inform all the other assessors should they be approached by one person regarding another.
In the year 5458 (1698) it is recorded that if the assessor was related to either the person being assessed or his business partner, the assessor must leave the hearing and may not voice any opinion in the matter; All must swear to abide by this edict. All of these edicts seem to address the concern that assessors, in particular, are in a position to be influenced by improper favoritism.
It is important to note that the Noda B’Yehuda15 writes that according to strict Torah law, assessors ought to be people who have no relatives in the city. Since it is not possible to bring in such outsiders to conduct the assessments, the custom was to allow assessors who do have relatives in a city. TheNoda B’Yehuda writes that there is essentially no difference in this regard whether an assessor is assessing a relative or a non-relative. Even when assessing non-relatives there is an opportunity to benefit relatives, because by increasing the burden of the non-relatives they are easing the burden of their relatives. Nevertheless, writes the Noda B’Yehuda, many communities have established that assessors are only to assess their non-relatives. However, communities that have not adopted this practice are not required to follow it.
1 3, 2.
2 BaMidbar 32, 22.
3 Mishlei 3,4.
4 Peah 4, Talmud Bavli, Bava Basra 8b.
5 Tosefta Yoma 2.
6 Bava Basra 9a.
7 Melachim 2 12, 16
8 Yore Deah 157, 2.
9 Tur, Rama ibid.
10 Shekel HaKodesh, 2, 10 in Biur Halacha.
12 Published by the Mekitzei Nirdamim society in the year 5728 (1968), under the title “Pinkas HaKesheirim Shel Kehillas Pozna 5381-5596” (1621-1838).
13 1 29, 24.
14 See Meyuchas L’Rashi, ibid.
15 C.M. 21