Am I encouraging tax evasion when I patronize a “cash only” business?

Q. Some businesses in my area are run on a “cash only” basis. Can I patronize these businesses, or is this encouraging tax evasion? IK

A. There are three possible answers to your question:

Answer one: It’s fine — paying taxes is the proprietor’s responsibility, not yours.

Answer two: You can patronize these businesses, but you yourself should demand a receipt so that you are not encouraging deceit.

Answer three: You should boycott dishonest places of business.

Which answer is correct? All three! It depends on the exact situation.

Jewish law forbids abetting wrongdoing. The basic source for this prohibition is the verse, “Don’t put a stumbling block before the blind.” (Leviticus 19:14.) Our tradition interprets this as a spiritual obstacle that will aid someone in a transgression. Let us examine the parameters of this prohibition.

On the one hand, Jewish tradition urges us to show moral leadership and take responsibility for the moral progress of the world. This means that we cannot shirk responsibility when our actions encourage wrongdoing. On the other hand, Jewish tradition tells us that we should give others the benefit of the doubt, as the very next verse tells us, “Judge your neighbor favorably.” (Leviticus 19:15.) And certainly it is not a mitzvah to be a busybody.

Therefore, Jewish law states that even if someone may seem to be involved in wrongdoing, we don’t have to scrutinize his or her activities if a favorable interpretation is reasonable, even if it is somewhat improbable. The example given in the Mishna is someone who buys an ox in the Sabbatical year. Even though most such oxen are used for plowing, which is forbidden in the Sabbatical year, it is not unusual for someone to buy an ox for its meat. So we are allowed to give the person the benefit of the doubt and sell them the ox.

So if the cash basis of the business has a reasonable explanation besides tax evasion, then we don’t need to scrutinize the proprietor’s motives. Specific examples would depend on local law and custom.

However, if a permissible explanation is quite improbable, or if the person tells us right out that they intend to do something wrong, then we must avoid helping them. So if someone’s competitors use written receipts or a cash register but he refuses, or if the proprietor mentions that he can’t give a receipt because then he will have to pay tax, then paying cash will help him evade taxes and is improper. In this case, explain that you will be able to patronize his business only if he is willing to give a proper receipt.

In some cases it would be necessary to avoid the business altogether. This is because of an additional problem called “marit ayin,” meaning giving the appearance of wrongdoing. If the business in question is well known as one which evades taxes, and others can easily see that you patronize the business but have no way of knowing that you individually are demanding a receipt, then you could be giving the impression of abetting the seller’s subterfuge. In this case it would be necessary to find a way to publicize your insistence on a receipt or to avoid the place of business altogether.

SOURCES: Mishna Sheviit 5:8; 3:4