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May 17, 2013 8:28 am

Rabbi Akiva and the IRS

avatar by Edward Alexander

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A painting of Rabbi Akiva. Photo: Jeff Makor via Myspace.

As the IRS scandal unfolds, it is worth recalling that , according to the medieval rabbis, the practice of reciting kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead,originated in the medieval story of Rabbi Akiva found in Mahzor Vitry. Walking in a cemetery, Akiva meets a naked man, carrying wood on his head and apparently alive. Stopping him, Akiva asks why he does such onerous work and just who he is.

The man replies that he is dead, and that in life he had been a tax collector who showed partisan prejudice in assessing taxes, favoring the rich and killing the poor. Akiva asks whether his “superiors” have told him how he might relieve his condition. The unfortunate man, “black as coal,” says there probably is no relief for him, but that he has heard that if he had a son and his son were to stand before the congregation and recite “Bless the Lord who is blessed!” and the congregation were to answer amen, and the son were also to say “May the Great Name be blessed” [a sentence from the kaddish] “they would release him from his punishment.”

Unfortunately, the tax collector never had a son, although he did leave his wife pregnant when he died. But even if she gave birth to a boy, who would teach Torah to the son of a friendless man? Perhaps the IRS culprits should pay close attention to Akiva’s story.

Edward Alexander’s most recent book is The State of the Jews: A Critical Appraisal (Transaction Publishers).

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  • Tax collectors were not civil servants. They usually held office by paying a huge fee and retaining a percentage of collections, which were often arbitrary. The Rabbis knew whereof they spoke.

  • David S

    What a ridiculous analogy. The Talmud also felt that tax collectors (Sanhedrin 25b) were disqualified from becoming judges or witnesses since they were no better than robbers. They of course are not robbers, they are civil servants upholding the law. To the extent that they targeted conservative groups they acted improperly, but ask yourself another question. Were groups that attempt to gain charitable status by misleading the IRS about their political work acting righteously? Perhaps Rabbi Akiva saw some of those types of thieves in another story.

  • Dallas Al

    This should go to every Congressman and Senator and President Obama.