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13.02.2017 13:05    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parasha  exodus  yitro  

On Commanding Not to Covet

Exodus 20:13:  “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house:  you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female slave, or his ox or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”

Deuteronomy 5:17:  “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.  You shall not crave your neighbor’s house, or his field, or his male or female slave, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”

What is meant by “you shall not covet”?

Clarifying the dictionary meaning of the verb h-m-d (= to covet) in the Bible is important in order to ascertain whether this refers to something done in thought alone, or whether it also entails some action, as in “you shall not steal” and “you shall not murder.”

In the bible the verb h-m-d is used to denote two meanings:[1]

  1. Lustful thoughts (with no accompanying action), as in the verse, “Do not lust [h-m-d] for her beauty in your heart” (Prov. 6:25), and like the parallel verb, lo tit’ave, do not crave.
  2. Extortion and robbery, as explicitly indicated in verses of the Bible where a close connection exists between lusting for something in one’s mind and unlawfully appropriating for oneself:

Deuteronomy 7:25:  “You shall not covet the silver and gold on them and keep it for yourselves.”

Joshua 7:21:  “I saw among the spoil a fine Shinar mantle…and I coveted them and took them.”

Micah 2:2:  “They covet fields, and seize them; houses, and take them away.  They defraud men of their homes, and people of their land.”

A question of concern to the Sages and to biblical exegetes throughout the generations has been how one can command a person concerning inner thoughts and cravings?  Does a person have control over what he sees, thinks and feels?  Furthermore, are not such things given to none other than the Almighty, who “tests the thoughts and the mind,” and not to the jurisdiction of the courts!

Let us look at the various ways this injunction has been approached.

Sefer ha-Hinukh (commandment 416) asserts that it is in human hands to prevent feeling covetous.  It is only a matter of education and self-control, and lies in the realm of free choice:

Do not be so naïve as to say: how can it be in a person’s hands to prevent his mind from craving any lovely thing that he sees in his friend’s possession…, and how can the Torah command against that which a person cannot help?  This is not so, and is not said except by wicked sinful fools; for it is indeed in a person’s hands to refrain from thinking and craving for anything he wishes, and it is in his power and mental ability to hold at bay or to draw near that which he desires, in all respects, however he wishes.

Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra gives a cogent explanation (long commentary on Ex. 20:13), using the following analogy:

Many people may wonder about this commandment, how anyone would not covet something lovely, anything that is pleasing to his eyes.  Now I will give you a parable.  Know that a peasant who is of sound mind and sees a beautiful princess will not covet her, desiring to lie with her, for he knows that such a thing is out of the question.  Do not consider this peasant to be like a lunatic, who would desire wings to fly to heaven, even though it is impossible.  Likewise, a person does not crave to lie with his mother, although she be beautiful, for he has been trained from an early age to know that she is forbidden to him.  Thus, any intelligent person should know that a beautiful woman or riches will not come to him because of his wisdom or knowledge, but only if the Lord allots it to him…hence an intelligent person will not crave or covet.[2]

The Midrash and some commentators go in the direction of setting limits, as a warning to refrain from transgressing one’s thoughts so that one not be led to commit a transgression in deed.  The Mekhilta of Rabbi Simeon bar Yokhai 20 says:  “Whence do we know that if a person craves something, in the end he will covet?  From ‘You shall not covet,…and you shall not crave.’  Whence do we know that if someone covets, ultimately he will rob?  From the verse, ‘They covet fields, and seize them’ (Micah 2:2).”

Rabbenu Bahya put it nicely:

You shall not covet.  It is well-known that coveting is a matter of the mind, and the main thrust of the commandment is that a person should give up thoughts of all that his fellow has—real estate and moveable property, and turn his mind away from such thoughts, not thinking of them and not coveting them, because out of coveting a person comes to committing murder, as we find with Achan (Josh. 7:21):  “I saw among the spoil a fine Shinar mantle,…and I coveted them and took them.”

In Rabbenu Bahya’s opinion, coveting subsumes robbing:

Were it not that robbing is included in coveting and comes from coveting, “You shall not rob” should have been included in the Decalogue along with the other injunctions of the form “You shall not,” for it is an extremely grave transgression, and most of the world fails in respect of it.  Moreover, it is a logically imperative injunction like murdering, committing adultery, stealing, and bearing false witness; but since coveting subsumes it, for a person does not rob before he covets—as it says in Scripture (Micah 2:2), “They covet fields, and seize them”—there was no need to mention it, insofar as it is subsumed by the injunction, “You shall not covet.”

He sums up, “Also, He wished to forbid even coveting [alone], which is craving in one’s heart, at all times, even when it does not find expression in action, so that we deduce from the minor to the major that robbery, which is the action, is forbidden.”[3]

Ultimately, however, in the practical test of the halakhah, it was established that this proscription is only violated if the person takes action.

Midrash Tannaim on Deuteronomy 5 says:

You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or even covet some object?  As we learn from Scripture (Deut. 7:25):  “You shall not covet the silver and gold on them and keep it for yourselves.”  Just as below [a transgression is not committed] until he takes some action, so here, until he has taken some action.  Whence do we know that we are cautioned against thoughts of craving, so that we not end up coveting?  From Scripture: “You shall not crave your neighbor’s house.” Thus craving is prohibited in its own right and coveting, in its own right.

Maimonides sets forward an explanation of this commandment in Sefer ha-Mitzvot (neg. com. 266):

The prohibition is that we are forbidden to occupy our thoughts with our desire for someone else’s property and to develop a craving for it, and dwell upon it, since this will lead us to carry out a plan to acquire it.

The expression used for this prohibition is G-d’s statement, “Do not crave your neighbor’s house.”  These two prohibitions are not the same, rather, the first prohibition—You shall not covet—forbids buying someone else’s belongings, whereas the second—You shall not crave—prohibits even feeling desire and envy.

In light of this, if he sees a fine object that belongs to his brother and allows his thoughts to gain control and make him crave it, then he transgresses the injunction  of the Holy One, blessed be He, “You shall not crave.”  If his love for the object becomes stronger, so that he strives to acquire it, not shrinking back from coaxing him and applying pressure on him to sell it or trade it for something better or more expensive, and he attains that which he sought, then he has transgressed “You shall not covet.”   He also transgresses the prohibition, “You shall not crave,” since by pressing and scheming he acquired something that belonged to his neighbor even though the latter had no intention of selling it to him.  Thus he has transgressed both “You shall not crave” and “You shall not covet,” as we have explained.

If, however, the owner, because of his love for the object, refuses to sell or trade it, then his great desire for it will cause him to take it by force and violence.  At that point he also transgresses the prohibition, “Do not commit robbery.”

In his magnum opusMishneh Torah (Hilkhot Gezelah ve-Avedah, ch. 1), Maimonides spells out the bounds of this prohibition and its laws:

Halakhah 9:  Anyone who covets a servant, a maidservant, a house or utensils that belong to a colleague, or any other article that he can purchase from him and pressure him with friends and requests until he agrees to sell it to him—such person violates a negative commandment, even though he pays much money for it,[4] as it says (Ex. 20:14), “You shall not covet”…One does not violate this commandment until one actually takes the article coveted, until coveting is accompanied by a deed.

Halakhah 11:  Craving leads to coveting and coveting leads to robbery, for if the owners do not desire to sell despite the offer of much money and supplications by friends, the person motivated by craving will be moved to robbery, as Micah 2:2 states:  “They covet houses and seize them.”  And if the owner stands up against them to save his property or prevents the person from robbing, he will be moved to commit murder.  Take, for example, the case of Ahab and Navot.

To sum up, coveting includes craving and desiring, as well as plotting to attain the desired object.  Indeed, the Torah also forbids coveting that is not translated into action, for it contains the seeds of the societal ills in the realm of unlawful appropriation and robbery.  But in practice, the halakhah rules that this prohibition is violated only if an actual deed is committed.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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