During the 16th century, the northern city of Safed in the Land of Israel was a global center of Jewish life. Its rolling hills were graced by a thriving Jewish community, led by giants of the mind: great halachic authorities, Biblical commentators, poets, and mystics. One of the last of the greats was the extraordinary scholar and prolific author, Rabbi Moshe Alshich (Al-Sheikh), who died in 1600, at age 94, almost unheard of longevity in those times.

At the time, the Holy Land was part of the Ottoman Empire. The Turkish rulers were content to let the Jewish community do its own thing (most of the time), as long as they promptly collected and paid the taxes imposed on them. Each person, rich or poor, had to pay a head tax for living in the city. There were also taxes for building bridges, fixing roads, and guarding the city walls. On top of all those taxes, the Jewish community demanded dues to cover its own expenses, such as paying for the rabbi and feeding the poor.

It is also important to understand that providing the funds for these taxes was no easy feat. The city was in decline, having endured famine, persecution, and other calamities.1

Things would eventually get so bad that Rabbi Alshich himself would need to travel abroad to provide food and basic necessities for his flock.

Yet, the taxes were non-negotiable and the Jews of Safed were all expected to do whatever they could to do their part.

Most of the taxes were levied based on income, which was re-evaluated every three years. There was a price cap of 2,000 gold coins; even the richest didn’t pay more than that. Initially, the scholars were exempt from paying taxes, but eventually that changed and they too had to pay. If a person didn’t pay their taxes, the community would lay out the money and then pursue reimbursement through the beit din (rabbinical court).

What if someone felt that he was taxed too heavily? He could make an appeal accompanied by a solemn oath in court that he did not have the money the tax assessors claimed he did, and his debt would be eased. Swearing falsely using G‑d’s name was regarded as such a lowly act that it was assumed such behavior was beyond the pale. People didn’t like paying taxes hundreds of years ago any more than they like paying them today, but there was a limit to how far someone was willing to go to evade them. This system worked pretty well, but occasionally something is bound to go wrong.2

A Safed resident had built a flourishing business that spanned from Syria (known to Jews then as Tzova) to Turkey (Togarmah). He was away overseeing his business interests so often that his wife and children joined him in Syria. One day, he received notice that the tax assessor in his hometown had doubled his tax burden, evidently convinced that his wealth had grown considerably. Outraged, he presented himself to the local beit din in Aleppo, capital of Syria, to duly swear that the assessment was exaggerated.

The Aleppo court issued a letter to their Safed counterparts confirming that they had accepted the testimony. The leaders of the Safed community were not impressed. “It is true,” they said, “that we accept an oath as proof, but it is our established custom to only accept it if issued in the presence of our people. What does the community in Aleppo have to do with it?” They argued that the oath had to be taken locally so that the person would be too ashamed to swear falsely in front of his acquaintances. Consequently, they demanded that the applicant pay the bill in full.

Meanwhile, our friend from Safed, now living in Aleppo, refused to pay more than he had in previous years. As per normal practice, the community drew the money from its Poor Fund, intending to pursue a legal remedy through the courts. Before this could happen, however, the man died, leaving behind a wife and several young children. The community of Safed sued the estate of the orphans to claim the outstanding funds, but the community of Aleppo, guardians of the orphans, insisted that they were duty-bound to protect the interests of the bereaved children.

And so the matter came before the illustrious Rabbi Alshich for adjudication, who at the time was well into his eighties and serving as the rabbi of Safed. His written record of the case expresses great skepticism at the notion that there was an established custom for the oath to be given locally. “After investigating the matter, I was only able to find a single precedent for this ‘established custom,’ ” he noted caustically. “That was a case where they threatened to refuse the testimony of a Damascus resident, and he was cowered into submission.” How, Rabbi Alshich asked, does that amount to an established custom?

As to the claim that the Safed community had a right to insist that the oath be given locally, Rabbi Alshich acknowledged that the Talmud3 does indeed allow for a claimant in a financial case to demand that an oath be taken in his own location.

However, he noted, the great medieval halachic authorities were not in agreement about whether that held true even if the one making the oath lived in a different location.4 In our case, the businessman was living in Aleppo.

Additionally, even those who held that the oath should be taken in the city of the claimant, that is only when the person taking the oath has some business in that city. The reason for this is that he would be embarrassed to swear falsely in front of the people of his city. However, in our case, the person already had no business in Safed for some time and would not have been embarrassed, so even they would agree that he need not swear there.

Rabbi Alshich further argued that even if one took the view that the claimant could decide where the oath was to be administered, once the oath was already taken it was too late to demand it be redone. Moreover, he cited the great sage Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg5 who asserted that the rule that the claimant controls where the oath is administered cannot be enforced after the fact.

Indeed, Rabbi Alshich noted that the Talmud6 and Maimonides7 both rule that if a person owes money to several people, once he has taken an oath before one of the claimants, there is no way to compel him to take a further oath to satisfy other claimants. From this, Rabbi Alshich derived that since the Safed businessman had already sworn to a beit din about the state of his financial assets, there was to be no redoing it.

Rabbi Alshich went even further, questioning if the Safed community had a right to determine where the oath was administered in the first place. He quoted Rabbeinu Nissim of Gerona who stated8 that only in the case of a lender can the claimant determine where the oath is made. That is because the lender has stuck his neck out to help the borrower (an entirely altruistic act, since interest is forbidden according to Jewish law), which confers on him certain natural rights. In our case, however, there was no lender, so it isn’t clear that such a right exists at all.

Finally, Rabbi Alshich insisted that the whole case against the businessman was conjecture, as they had no absolute proof as to the man’s wealth. After all, he had been living away for a couple of years and his business affairs were conducted abroad and thus unknown to the tax assessor. Given the weak position of the Safed claim, there was no justification for jeopardizing the position of the young orphans who deserved protection from questionable lawsuits.

And thus, the dispute was settled, the rights of the orphans defended, and the community in Safed was forced to deal with the financial shortfall. It is thanks to instances such as this that we have detailed information about how our brethren lived in generations past.