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December 31: The Basket Tax

Lawrence Bush
December 31, 2016
The korobka, or “basket tax,” a special tax on Jewish food and clothing in Poland and Lithuania, was levied by the Russian government, for lease to the highest bidder, on this date in 1844. The tax applied to ever cow and fowl killed as kosher meat, to every pound of kosher meat sold in the marketplace, and to the sale of caftans, yarmulkes, and Orthodox women’s wigs and head-gear. “The income from this tax,” according to the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, “has been in part devoted to the maintenance of Jewish schools. It was formerly used also to pay for the transportation of Jewish agriculturists to the colonies, and for various other communal needs.” However, the Russian government, according to the Jewish Virtual Library, “turned the korobka into an instrument for additional exaction of money from the Jews,” and the system was rife with corruption while greatly enforcing the power of wealthy Jews over their compatriots. “While poverty . . . [was] felt throughout the Jewish communities, millions of surplus rubles from the korobka funds were being deposited in the government bank (in January 1887, these surpluses totaled over 3,000,000 rubles, and in the year 1905, for the provinces of Kiev, Podolia, and Volhynia alone, there were reserves of over 1,500,000 rubles). It was only in exceptional cases, such as fire or flood, or to support the establishment of a large institution (a hospital, a school, or the like), that allocations were granted for the communities from these ‘surpluses.’ ” “In every town the tsar stationed a Jewish official, a desherdnik, whose business it was to collect the tax . . . It was an important post for a Jew in Russia; like here a policeman, but one also had to be . . . a villain, a murderer, to rise so high.” --“Unfair Jewish Taxes” website

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.