SALT - Tuesday, 18 Shevat 5777 - February 14, 2017

  • Rav David Silverberg

The Torah in Parashat Yitro tells of the Revelation at Sinai, when Benei Yisrael heard the Ten Commandments, the final of which is the prohibition of “lo tachmod” – “coveting” an item belonging to one’s fellow.  The Rambam, in Hilkhot Gezeila (1:9), writes that one transgresses this prohibition when he applies pressure upon somebody to sell him the possession that he desires to the point where the owner agrees to sell it.  Even though the buyer paid full price for the item in question, he nevertheless has violated “lo tachmod.”

            The Ra’avad, in his critique of the Rambam’s halakhic code, disputes two points made by the Rambam regarding this prohibition.  First, the Ra’avad comments that one violates this prohibition only if the owner did not ultimately consent to sell the possession.  If the owner verbalizes consent, then the buyer is not in violation of “lo tachmod,” even though the seller consented only due to the pressure applied.  This is in contrast to the Rambam’s implication that the buyer transgresses this prohibition by applying pressure even if the seller finally voices his consent.

            The second point of debate between the Rambam and Ra’avad in regard to “lo tachmod” relates to the reason why violators of this command are not liable to corporal punishment.  The Rambam writes that one does not receive malkot (lashes) for violating this prohibition because it falls under the category of “lav she-ein bo ma’aseh” – a prohibition that one transgresses without a concrete action.  A well-established halakhic rule limits court-administered punishment to transgressions that are violated by committing a concrete action, and the Rambam points to this rule as the reason why “lo tachmod” is not punishable by Beit Din.  The Ra’avad, however, argues, asking, “Where do we see an action greater than seizing the object?!”  In his view, pressuring an object’s owner to sell it certainly qualifies as an “action” that would warrant court-administered punishment.  The Ra’avad therefore points to a different reason for why Beit Din does not punish violators of “lo tachmod,” namely, the fact that they are obligated to return the object.  Halakha exempts from corporal punishment violators of transgressions which impose a financial liability upon them.  A thief, for example, does not receive malkot because he is required to return what he stole.  According to the Ra’avad, one who violates “lo tachmod” is akin to a thief, and bears an obligation to return what he unlawfully obtained.  As such, he is not liable to malkot.

            The Steipler Gaon, in Birkat Peretz, notes that the Rambam and Ra’avad’s different rulings reflect two fundamentally different perspectives on the prohibition of “lo tachmod.”  The Ra’avad quite clearly viewed this violation as an offense resembling theft.  According to his perspective, “lo tachmod” essentially forbids a variation of theft – stealing with paying compensation.  Therefore, one violates this prohibition only if the owner never agrees to the transaction, and he is required to return the item just as a thief must return the stolen goods.  And, in the Ra’avad’s view, this transgression involves a concrete action, as one violates the command by seizing the object, just as in the case of standard theft.  The Rambam, however, understood “lo tachmod” much differently.  In his view, the prohibition of “lo tachmod,” as the Torah’s formulation would suggest, is, at its core, a prohibition against desiring the property belonging to another person.  While it is true that one does not transgress “lo tachmod” unless he actually obtains the item he desires, this provision is a condition to which the prohibition is subject, not the essence and definition of the prohibition.  In other words, “lo tachmod” forbids coveting another person’s property, but only if one covets to the point of successfully pressuring the individual to sell it.  For this reason, in the Rambam’s view, one violates “lo tachmod” even if the owner ultimately agrees to the sale, since the violator satisfied the condition of successfully working to obtain the object.  And, for the same reason, the object does not have to be returned.  Since the owner eventually agreed to sell the object, the sale is legally binding, and the buyer – though he transgressed a Torah violation – is not required to return it.  This also explains why the Rambam classifies “lo tachmod” as a “lav she-ein bo ma’aseh.”  Since “lo tachmod” is defined as a prohibition against the desire for another person’s object, as opposed to the act of seizing the object, it qualifies as a “lav she-ein bo ma’aseh” despite the fact that the object must be taken for the violation to have been committed.