“You Shall Not Covet”

  • Harav Yaakov Medan

Translated by Kaeren Fish

a.

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house;

You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.” (Shemot 20:13)

The division of the Ten Commandments according to the Masoretic tradition is different from the division familiar to us. The ba’alei ha-masora joined “I am the Lord your God” together with “You shall have no other gods before Me” as one commandment, while dividing the prohibition “You shall not covet” into two, reflecting the fact that there are in fact two separate commands here, as is clear from our presentation of the verse above. Moreover, in the Ten Commandments as they appear in Sefer Devarim, the two commands are divided even in their language:

“… Neither shall you covet your neighbor’s wife,

Neither shall you desire your neighbor’s house, his field, or his manservant, or his maidservant, his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” (Devarim 5:17)

Here, the first part of the prohibition starts with “You shall not covet” (lo tachmod) while the second is introduced with “you shall not desire” (lo tit’aveh), making the division into two commandments even clearer.

The commandment in Sefer Shemot seems to follow a structure that moves from the general to the specific: first the Torah speaks of “your neighbor’s house,” and then goes on to enumerate the elements comprising that general concept. The “house” means, first, the wife who lives in his home (“‘His home’ means ‘his wife’ – Yoma 2a).[1] The ‘house’ also includes his manservant and maidservant who live in his house, and the ox and donkey housed in his courtyard. In contrast, the two parts of the verse in Sefer Devarim are separated in terms of their content; there is a significant difference between coveting a neighbor’s wife and desiring his property.

Based on this division into two prohibitions – especially as presented in Sefer Devarim – we find that the second Tablet actually features six commandments, inviting a reconsideration of their structure. Perhaps these six commandments might be divided into two groups of three: the first triad opens with “You shall not murder,” while the second opens with “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” – since the greatest harm that could be caused by false testimony is that it could lead to an innocent person being sentenced to death. The next commandment in the first triad is “You shall not commit adultery,” corresponding to “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.” The third commandment of the first triad is “You shall not steal,”[2] while the corresponding commandment in the second triad is “You shall not desire your neighbor’s house….”

b.

What is the nature of this “coveting” that is forbidden? The halakhic sources part ways here with the commentators who tend towards the “peshat” of the text. Ibn Ezra and Rabbenu Bechaye maintain that the prohibition concerns one’s inner feeling:

“Many people would wonder at this command: How can any person not covet a beautiful thing in his heart? … One should be satisfied with his lot and not allow his heart to covet and desire something that is not his, for he knows that God does not wish to give it to him [and therefore] he cannot take it by force or by scheming and cunning; therefore he should have faith in his Creator that He will sustain him and act as He sees fit.” (Ibn Ezra on Shemot 20:13)

“It is known that coveting is a matter of the heart, and the essence of this commandment is that a person should eschew anything that belongs to his fellow – whether estate or property – and turn his heart from any thought of it, such that he will not think about them and not covet them.” (Rabbenu Bechaye, ad loc.)

According to these interpretations, the same message is conveyed by the command “lo tit’aveh” (you shall not desire). However, there is a difference between “coveting” and “desiring”: desire arises from a physical source, usually bodily needs, and it seeks immediate gratification. “Coveting,” on the other hand, has a higher, more spiritual source. It seeks to fulfill a need that makes sense, that involves a longer time-frame, and that is prompted by a broader and more general perspective. For this reason, “coveting” may lead a person into convoluted legal reasoning or other ways of convincing himself that something is permitted to him. Here, the Torah demands that a person control his desires and banish them from his thoughts. It obligates him to beware of justifications arising from his coveting of a woman or money – justifications advanced by his own yetzer ha-ra – and the seeming permissibility that he may deem applicable as a result. In this regard we cite the precious words of Ramchal:

“Know that this is a fundamental principle, well tested by experience, in the practice of separation (perishut): every leniency must be carefully investigated. For even though it may be straightforward and proper, nevertheless it is more likely to be the advice and deceit of the evil inclination. Therefore, one must investigate it with careful analysis and examination. If after all this it still stands meritorious, then certainly it is good.” (Mesilat Yesharim 6)

c.

As noted, the halakhic interpretation of the prohibition, based on the Gemara, is different from the view of the commentaries mentioned above. According to the halakhic view, the commandment “You shall not covet” concerns not the jealous thoughts but rather the act of taking, or acting for the purpose of taking, the coveted object. According to the Rambam, a person who covets transgresses the prohibition when he applies psychological or other pressure to the owner so that he will sell the object to him, even at a hefty price:

“Anyone who covets his neighbor’s manservant or maidservant or his house or his utensils, or any other article that he could acquire from him, and he presses upon him via his friends, pleading with him until he acquires it from him – even though he pays him a high price for it – he violates a negative commandment, as it is written, ‘You shall not covet.’” (Rambam, Hilkhot Gezeila vaAveida 1:9)

An example of the potential harm of violating this transgression is the episode of Navot’s vineyard:

“And it came to pass after these things, that Navot the Yizre’eli had a vineyard, which was in Yizre’el, near the palace of Achav, king of Shomron. And Achav spoke to Navot, saying, Give me your vineyard, that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near to my house, and I will give you for it a better vineyard than it, or, if it seem good to you, I will give you its worth in money. And Navot said to Achav, The Lord forbid me that I should give you the inheritance of my fathers. And Achav came into his house sullen and displeased because of the word which Navot the Yizre’eli had spoken to him, for he had said, I will not give you the inheritance of my fathers. And he laid himself down upon his bed, and turned away his face, and would not eat bread.” (Melakhim I 21:1-4)

This episode, which starts with coveting, soon degenerates to false testimony, bloodshed (the killing of Navot and his sons), the theft of the vineyard, and ultimately Eliyahu’s prophecy of the downfall of the house of Achav.

Seemingly, this sort of coveting concerns money but not other people’s wives. However, we find in the aggada a similar tale of coveting which sealed the fate of Jerusalem for ruin at the end of the Second Temple period, with the coveter deceptively convincing a woman’s husband to divorce her so that he himself could marry her:

“A certain man once set his eyes upon the wife of his master, he being a carpenter’s apprentice. Once his master needed to borrow money from him. He said to him, ‘Send your wife to me, and I will give [the money] to her.’ He sent his wife to him, and he spent three days with her. [The carpenter] went to him and said, ‘My wife, who I sent to you – where is she?’ He answered, ‘I sent her away at once, but I heard that the youngsters assaulted her on the way.’ [The carpenter] said, ‘What shall I do?’ He replied, ‘If you want my advice, divorce her.’ He said, ‘But her ketuba (marriage settlement) is high.’ He answered, ‘I will lend you the money so you can give her [what you owe her] according to her ketuba.’ So [the carpenter] went and divorced her, and [the apprentice] went and married her. When the time for payment came and he was unable to pay him, he said to him, ‘Come and work off your debt with me.’ So they would sit and eat and drink while he waited upon them, and the tears would fall from his eyes into their cups, and at that time the verdict was sealed.” (Gittin 58a)

Here the coveting did not lead to transgression of other specific prohibitions, as in the story of Navot’s vineyard, but it did cause untold anguish to the carpenter, who had been deceived, and his tears sealed the fate of Jerusalem.

This view of the prohibition of coveting bears a certain resemblance to the prohibition of hona’a (deception of a buyer by the seller, or vice versa). In the case of hona’a, too, the sale is conducted according to the proper procedure: both sides agree to the sale, and both agree on the price of the item in question. But one of the sides experiences anguish upon discovering, later on, that he could have made a better deal with his money (in the case of the buyer) or the item (in the case of the seller), based on the real market price. It is the causing of this anguish which the Torah prohibits as hona’a, and in the wake of which the sale is annulled, or the party that swindled the other is required to pay the difference to make up the regular market price. Both in the case of hona’a and in the case of coveting, according to the Rambam and most of the poskim, the emphasis is on the anguish that one person causes the other.

Let us take another look at the verse in which the prohibition appears:

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.” (Shemot 20:13)

The emphasis on “your neighbor” turns the prohibition of “You shall not covet” into the complement of the great principle in the Torah: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Vayikra 19:18). As in the case of hona’a, where the prohibition exists even in a seemingly standard, legitimate commercial context where the seller and buyer both consent to the sale, so in coveting one is forbidden to cause suffering to a fellow Jew even in a seemingly standard neighborly situation.

d.

This perspective leads us to consider a number of possible “gezerot shavot” involving the expression “your neighbor.” As an example, let us consider the preceding prohibition from the Ten Commandments: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Shemot 20:12). It may be that the continuation of this commandment is to be found in Sefer Vayikra:

“You shall not go about as a talebearer among your people, neither shall you stand aside when your neighbor’s life is at stake; I am the Lord.” (Vayikra 19:16)

It seems to me that the peshat of this verse presents standing aside in a situation of mortal danger as false testimony or tale-bearing (even where the facts being told are correct), which might lead to the person who is being spoken about ultimately receiving a death sentence from the court or civil regime. A person who bears false witness, or who gossips and talks about his neighbor, does not kill him with his own hands, but he may indirectly be allowing his death to happen.

As for our prohibition of coveting, it too has a parallel:

“If you at all take your neighbor’s garment for a pledge, you shall deliver it return it to him by sundown…” (Shemot 22:25)

“When you lend your neighbor anything, you shall not go into his house to fetch his pledge. You shall stand outside, and the man to whom you lend shall bring out the pledge to you. And if the man is poor, you shall not sleep with his pledge; you shall surely return him the pledge again when the sun goes down, that he may sleep in his own garment, and bless you, and it shall be as righteousness to you before the Lord your God.” (Devarim 24:10-13)

In both instances described here, the creditor takes property from the borrower in a manner that may be quite “legal”: the pledge is taken against money that that was loaned. However, the Torah places firm boundaries on the taking of the pledge. This may be an elaboration on the prohibition of “You shall not covet”: one who covets his neighbor’s property tries to pressure him in “legal” ways to part with it and hand it over to him.

Another possible parallel to the prohibition against coveting is:

“When you come into your neighbor’s vineyard then you may eat your fill of grapes at your desire, but you shall not put any in your vessel. When you come into your neighbor’s standing corn, then you may pluck the ears with your hand, but you shall not take a sickle to your neighbor’s standing corn.” (Devarim 23:25-26)

A person (laborer) is permitted to enter a field belonging to someone else and to eat of its produce, but he is limited as to quantity. Once again, a person finds himself in the seemingly grey area between love of money, or of some other commodity, and outright theft, and the Torah limits him in a manner that is reminiscent of the style of the prohibition against coveting.

The same might be said of the prohibition against removing a neighbor’s landmark (hasagat gevul):

“You shall not remove your neighbor’s landmark, which they of old time set in your inheritance, which you shall inherit in the land that the Lord your God gives you, to possess it.” (Devarim 19:14)

According to the halakha, land cannot be stolen. Even on the practical level, one cannot actually steal land and take it away; one can only use it. Shifting a landmark in secret may be viewed, in the context of this reality, as an act which once again falls in the grey area and which the Torah may be prohibiting as an example of desiring the field belonging to one’s neighbor.

One final example of a parallel of “You shall not covet”:

“You shall not oppress (or ‘defraud’ – ta’ashok) your neighbor, nor rob him…” (Vayikra 19:13)

Oshek is an act that borders on stealing. While the example treated in halakha concerns withholding a laborer’s wages, the prophets offer a broader interpretation that addresses the grey area in commerce. As one of many examples, let us consider,

“As for the merchant – balances of deceit (moznei mirma) are in his hand; he loves to deceive (la-ashok).” (Hoshea 12:8)

Here, the oshek takes the form of deceit in weights and measures. This prohibition, too, might be a sub-heading under the prohibition against coveting, once again reverberating via the “gezera shava” of the term “your neighbor.”

e.

What would the Rambam have to say about mere jealous thoughts, of the sort discussed by Ibn Ezra and Rabbenu Bechaye? In his view, are these thoughts forbidden by the Torah?

It would seem that the Rambam views the prohibition of “you shall not desire” (lo tit’aveh), as it appears in Sefer Devarim, as applying precisely to jealous thoughts:

“Anyone who desires his neighbor’s home, his wife, utensils, or anything else that he might acquire from him – if he thinks to himself, ‘How is it possible to acquire this thing?’, and his heart is aroused by it, then he transgresses a negative command, as it is written, ‘You shall not desire.’ Desire applies to feelings in the heart alone.” (Rambam, Hilkhot Gezeila vaAveida 1:10)

Thus we have two prohibitions: one comes to teach a person to guide his thoughts in a good and proper direction, while the other comes to protect the “neighbor” from damage that might be caused to him via seemingly legitimate processes. Ibn Ezra and Rabbeinu Bechaye go beyond what the Rambam teaches, for they learn from the seeming repetition of “you shall not covet” and “you shall not desire” that the Torah prevents us from convincing ourselves that something is permitted to us when it isn’t, and from rationalizing our desires when they are mere greed.

 


[1]  As in the verse, “And he shall make atonement for himself and for his house” (Vayikra 16:6); from this verse Chazal learn that the Kohen Gadol must have a wife.

[2]  While Chazal teach that this commandment refers specifically to “stealing souls” – i.e., kidnapping – even according to this view the motive for stealing is the thief’s coveting of money.