Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 6 February 2021 / 24 Shvat 5781

Parashat Yitro

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Thou Shall Not Covet

The last of the Ten Commandments demands that one not covet his neighbor’s possessions. When the Decalogue is repeated in the book of Devarim, this commandment includes both the prohibition of coveting (lo tachmod) and of desiring (lo titaveh). The Midrash distinguishes between the two: ta’avah denotes inner desire or lust, and chemdah denotes also desire that leads to action. (It should be noted that although the Midrash defines the word chemda in this verse to mean desire, in other contexts it is apparent that the word chemdah cannot mean desire. For example, the guarantee of security in property upon the three required festive pilgrimages to Jerusalem, “No one shall covet your land” (Shemot 3:24) cannot mean that no one will desire the land, but rather it means that no one will exploit your absence, and out of desire for your land will invade your borders.)

Thus, Jewish law prohibits exploitation. In the opinion of Maimonides, if one covets the possessions of his neighbor and pesters him by incessant importuning through friends or by other means until he gets the item from his neighbor even if he pays a high price for it — he transgresses this prohibition. (Gezelah v’Aveidah 1:9)

This opinion is based on the Talmud’s statement that it is a common fallacy to presume that the prohibition does not apply when one pays for the object. If one pressures his neighbor into selling him something that he covets — even though he legally obtains it — he nevertheless transgresses this prohibition.

The prohibition of covetous exploitation is further elucidated by the additional expression “lo titaveh” — do not desire anything belonging to your neighbor. The Torah prohibits each scenario, independent of the other: You should not think that the intention to legally acquire the object makes the desire permissible, and you should also not think that the transgression begins only with the deed. He who wishes not to come to sin must uproot the desire from his heart. The desire itself is a sin.

The purpose of these commandments is to declare all of one’s fellow man’s possession sacred unto him, and to forbid every kind of crime against them. But the final instruction — You shall not desire — bears the most emphasis. It means to guard against all forms of crime and exploitation, to not allow the desire for anything that is not yours to arise in your heart.

This final commandment bears the seal of G-d on the social part of the Decalogue. Even a mortal lawgiver can decree, “You shall not murder,” but only G-d — who probes the thoughts and feelings of man — can decree “You shall not covet.” Human governance can guard only against the crime, but so long as the seeds of the crime elude him, his governance remains sorely limited. As Hashem’s people, we are commanded not only to control our words and deeds, but also to control our hearts and minds.

  • Sources: Commentary, Shemot 20:14

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