Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Assets Discovered Posthumously

By: Meoros HaDaf Hayomi

Orphans are assumed to know nothing about their parents’ business and the Torah therefore empowers dayanim to represent them in case of claims, argue for them and demand claimants to take an oath or produce solid proof. Almost every Rishon expressed an opinion as to the claims a beis din may present on an orphan’s behalf. Ramban and other Rishonim hold that they may assert any claim (see Responsa Maharit, 112; Shach in C.M. §69 S.K. 26, and §297) but Tosfos on our sugya (70a, s.v. Veleima) and other Rishonim believe a beis din is limited to only reasonable claims. If, for example, someone produces a document proving he deposited funds with the deceased, the beis din may not claim they were subject to force majeure (oness), exempting the orphans, as oness such as an armed robbery is uncommon and would usually have become known. (Shulchan ‘Aruch cites both opinions in C.M. 108:4; see Shach, ibid, S.K. 8, who rules according to Ramban). Still, all agree that a beis din must not counter with utterly unreasonable claims that, if submitted by the father, would be rejected. Halachic authorities were consequently required to decide which claims should be considered realistic and acceptable.

Taxation in German Communities

Poskim subsequently discussed the autonomous taxation methods practiced in German Jewish communities. Each member of the community had to submit a periodic declaration of assets to enable proportional collection of internal revenue tax to cover expenses such as maintenance of public services (synagogues, medical care, mikvaos, etc.); wages of rabbis, shochatim, lobbyists and the like; and incidental costs. Declarations had to detail promissory notes, deposits, cash, silver, gold, wine and grain, all to be assessed for taxation (Minhagei Vormaiza, II, p. 134). A relevant incident occurred in Nikolsburg, Moravia, now in the Czech Republic but then ruled by Germans.

Fisk’s Tax Declaration

About 350 years ago Yaakov Fisk was one of the richest men in Nikolsburg and, like his companions, periodically declared his assets and paid his taxes. After his demise, his heirs found the inheritance to be worth 300% more than his last assessment and the gabaim of the community demanded arrears. Some dayanim, though, countered on the heirs’ behalf that Fisk could have become richer just before his death, after the last taxation, and they could hence not be forced to pay arrears for previous years (Responsa Tzemach Tzedek HaKadmon, 24).

We don’t all have the Luck of Yosef Mokir Shabos

A similar case is judged in Responsa Chavos Yair (57-58) and ruled that claims of sudden enrichment are unrealistic as most people become wealthy gradually, over a long period: “Should we assume he opened a fish and found a precious stone like Yosef Mokir Shabos or got rich by a stroke of luck?” A beis din, then, cannot make such claims and the heirs must pay the demanded arrears.