Roman taxes and customs
This passage, along with several other rabbinic texts from Palestine, regards Roman tax as illegal, and considers the collectors of Roman tax and customs (Jews or Gentiles) as robbers and thieves. Therefore, the text permits a person to deceive them in order to avoid paying tax or customs. Since Rome allowed the Jews to tithe produce for the benefit of the temple and the priests, vowing that one’s produce is a heave-offering may allow him to evade paying customs for this produce. Similarly one may vow that the produce belongs to the house of the king, and, therefore, be exempted from paying taxes. Even though the Mishnah was edited in the beginning of the 3rd century, according to Israel Ben Shalom (The School of Shamma, p. 309), this passage reflects a law from the time of the second temple period (before 70 CE), since the Roman tax exemption for heave-offering (terumah) produce was valid only as long as the temple was standing (see other reasons for the dating of this mishnah in Ben-Shalom’s discussion). Israel Ben Shalom adds that the house of the king is Herod’s House, and in this text the royal house probably refers to Herod Agrippa II (reigned from 48 until his death c. 92-100). The fact that the text discusses arguments between the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel may also reflect a possible Second Temple provenance for this passage, or at least that later rabbinic generations understood it as depicting a first century CE reality.
Section (a) presents customs collectors and confiscators, along with murderers, as criminals whose actions are illegitimate (but see Saul Lieberman and Yechezkel Kutcher, “ḥaragin, ḥaramin and tagarin,” about the possibility that murderers [haragim/הרגים] are also Roman officials). Therefore, although rabbinic texts generally tend to limit the use of vows, here, in order to avoid paying taxes, it is allowed. Thus, one may vow that the produce is heave-offering (terumah) or that the produce belongs to the house of the king.
The School of Shammai and the School of Hillel agreed about this permission, but debated the details. Israel Ben Shalom writes that the school of Shammai often aimed to prohibit the use of vows and oaths as much as possible (The School of Shammai, p. 187-191). Sections b-c delineate the arguments between the two houses in this regard. Section (b) suggests that according to the school of Shammai, the use of oaths is prohibited, while the School of Hillel approves them. Other texts also permitted using oaths in front of tax officials; see, for example, Jerusalem Talmud Nedarim 3:4, 38a, and Tosefta Shevuot2:14: “The one who takes a [false] oath in front of Gentiles, customs collectors or robbers (the Greek word lēstēs is used) is exempt (from punishment)…” (המשביע בפני גוים בפני מוכסין בפני ליסטין פטור). The logic of this position is that when one uses a vow or an oath in such an encounter, he is considered as one who was forced to use these measures, and thus does not have to fulfill the vow.
Section (d) presents another debate between the two schools. According to the School of Shammai, one may vow only regarding the issue that was required by the customs collectors (or the robbers), but according to the School of Hillel, one may vow also about issues that the customs collectors did not mention. At that point, the Mishnah attempts to explain the actual meaning of their debate by presenting a situation in which the differences between the two schools have practical consequences. In this scenario, after a man declares that his produce is heave-offering or belongs to the house of the king, the customs collectors (or the robbers) force him to vow regarding a certain issue, for example: “Qonam if my wife derives benefit from me,” meaning that if the produce is not as one has said (i.e. not heave-offering) his wife will not be able to derive benefit from anything that belongs to him, and thus he will not be able to sustain her. However, although the customs collectors asked only about the wife, the person added his children to the vow, saying: “Qonam if my wife and children derive benefit from me.” The Mishnah explains that in such a case, according to the School of Shammai, the person must fulfil this part of the vow, meaning that he is prohibited from sustaining his children. According to the School of Hillel, even if one’s vow is not exactly in accordance with the customs collectors’ command, he is not obligated to fulfil the vow (and so can continue to provide for his wife and children), since the entire situation is not one of free will. A vow in this instance is considered to have been forced by the authorities or criminals.