Ki Tisa (Seqalim), 2:2
Each chapter of the fifth-century midrash Pesiqta de Rav Kahana interprets a special scriptural reading: Torah selections and portions from the Prophets (haftarah) for festivals and special Sabbaths (more on this midrashic collection in Reizel, Introduction, p. 223-233). Our passage appears in a chapter that expounds on Exodus 30:11-16, the additional Torah reading (maftir) for Shabbat Sheqalim, the Shabbat that immediately precedes or begins the month of Adar (see Mishnah Megillah 3:4; Tosefta Megillah 3:1, 4) when, according to rabbinic sources, the collection of a mandatory half-sheqel (pl. sheqalim) donation for the Temple was announced annually (Mishnah Sheqalim 1:1; Jerusalem Talmud Sheqalim 1:1, 45d). The additional reading for Shabbat sheqalim therefore addresses the collection of this half sheqel for the Sanctuary:
(11) The Lord spoke to Moses: (12) When you take a census of the Israelites (lit. “When you lift the head of the sons of Israel”) to register them, at registration all of them shall give a ransom for their lives to the Lord, so that no plague may come upon them for being registered. (13) This is what each one who is registered shall give: half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary (the shekel is twenty gerahs), half a shekel as an offering to the Lord. (14) Each one who is registered, from twenty years old and upward, shall give the Lord’s offering. (15) The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less, than the half shekel, when you bring this offering to the Lord to make atonement for your lives. (16) You shall take the atonement money from the Israelites and shall designate it for the service of the tent of meeting; before the Lord it will be a reminder to the Israelites of the ransom given for your lives” (Exodus 30:11-16, NRSV)
Our midrashic passage is ascribed to Rabbi Yonatan of Beit Guvrin, a second-generation amora who was active in the third century. However, the identity of Rabbi Ya‘akov bar Yuda, who transmits this teaching, is unclear. This tradition takes the form of a petiḥah (petiḥtah in Aramaic), an introduction to a sermon, homily or midrashic unit that opens (pataḥ in Hebrew or petaḥ in Aramaic) with a verse from the Tanakh (usually from the Writings, but at times from the Prophets) and concludes the homily with a quotation from the Torah reading for that Shabbat or holiday. Scholars have characterized this rhetorical technique as a showcase for oratorial virtuosity: this opening would raise interest in how the presenter would link this seemingly unrelated initial verse to the Torah portion being elucidated. However, Paul Mandel who has studied developments in the meanings of the word pataḥ suggests that, in amoraic midrashim, this term denotes “revealing knowledge to students” rather than “begin,” understood as the start of a publicly delivered exegesis. Thus, in this context, the goal of the petiḥah is to explain this opening verse to students in the study house, rather than to begin a sermon in the synagogue that would lead to the current Torah reading (Mandel, “On ‘Patah’ and the Petihah,” p. 68; for more on this rhetorical form, see his entire article; on the petiḥah as part of a sermon or as a “redactional construction,” see Visotzky, “The Misnomers Petihah”). Its original setting notwithstanding, our passage appears in a chapter that is dedicated to the special Torah portion for Shabbat Sheqalim.
This petiḥah opens with a verse from Proverbs: “The way of the lazy is overgrown with thorns, but the path of the upright is a level highway” (15:19, NRSV). Here “the way of the lazy” is contrasted with “the path of the upright,” which is used to present the conduct of Esau the wicked, who symbolizes Rome (Christian Rome by the fifth century) vis-à-vis God’s actions. This comparison focuses on tax collection, which relates to the topic of the additional Torah reading on this Shabbat. Let us consider Roman tax policy as presented in this midrash. Its author cites the phrase “overgrown with thorns” to liken Esau to a splinter that is difficult to remove, yet each attempt to extract it causes severe pain from another direction. Esau is described as harshly demanding the payment of three taxes:
1) Head tax: golgalta in Aramaic, a skull, head or type of tax. Probably referring to “the capitation, a per capita tax in cash” (Christ, The Romans, p. 182).
2) “Your dimosyykh”: probably from the Greek ta dēmosia (as suggested by Sokoloff, A Dictionary, p. 141); meaning public dues, taxes (on the use of this term in sixth-century Egypt, see Bransbourg, “Capital,” 319, 321, 323).
3) Annona: This term originally referred to a grain supply for the city of Rome that was partially funded by provincial taxes. Toward the late second and early third centuries, it also encompassed provisions for the army, for which local populations were levied according to the needs of nearby troops. This in-kind tax was collected in proportion to one’s landholding.
After describing Esau the wicked demanding these taxes, this midrash continues by explaining that, if a person lacks the resources to pay, Esau responds by exacting further punishment and additional fines. Roman tax collection is therefore described as merciless, without consideration for an individual’s economic situation, the opportunity for negotiation or even a means to plead one’s case.
At that point, the midrash turns to the second half of Proverbs 15:19: “But the path of the upright is a level highway,” as a metaphor for how God instructed Moses to collect mandatory payments for the Sanctuary. Having made the link to the special reading for Shabbat Sheqalim, the audience could now appreciate the righteous approach to gathering the half sheqel for the Temple. Although this tax was mandatory, God charges Moses to communicate directly with the people of Israel, respectfully requesting payment while highlighting the benefits that their donations will yield. This description contrasts sharply with the Roman methods that had been detailed before.
The cruelty of Roman tax policies is also a theme in non-Jewish sources from the fourth and fifth centuries. As Hartmut Ziche writes: “Violence in the process of tax collection featured prominently in contemporary writings.” As an example, he mentions “Salvian of Marseilles [De gubernatione dei 5.17 ff. who] harshly criticized cruel tax collectors for the means they employed to collect taxes from the average, humble taxpayer” (“Making Late Roman Taxpayers Pay,” p. 126). Therefore, the critique of Roman taxation in Pesiqta de Rav Kahana typifies Late Antique discourse. However, the rabbis speak of this ominous tax collector as Esau the wicked rather than Rome, thus adding an element of a rivalry between the two nations to their treatment of this subject.
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