Masorti Judaism


By Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb

Can We Be Commanded Lo Tachmod, Not to Covet?

The Ten Commandments, which appear in Parshat Yitro (Ex. Ch 20) and again in V'etchanan (Deut. Ch 5), cover thought, speech and action.  The first and last dibrot ("sayings") – "I am the Lord your God" and "thou shall not covet" – focus on mental awareness.  The first is critical to religious belief and behaviour; the latter to proper conduct toward one's fellow and the ability to live in a society where not all have similar fortunes.  Thus their placement, bookending the commandments of speech and deed, is not simply coincidental.

Interestingly enough, some commentators have disagreed with this assessment. They wondered if a person can be commanded what to think.  For this reason, some say that the first – "I am the Lord your God" – is not a commandment at all but only a statement.  And regarding the last, they say that a person cannot be ordered not to want something his neighbour has; it is only natural that one might.  The commandment, they say, prohibits taking any action based on that desire to obtain it from the neighbour by pressure, manipulation or other inappropriate means.

The view that the commandment lo tachmod addresses action can be supported by the text, as well.  The verse this week (Ex. 20:13) repeats the same verb – "You shall not covet (lo tachmod) your neighbour's house; you shall not covet (lo tachmod) your neighbour's wife."  But in the parallel verse in Deuteronomy (5:17) the second verb is lo titaveh, “do not desire”, from which a difference can be learned: desire is the mental status; tachmod (covet) is the implementation in deed.  Thus the Halacha does not consider one to have violated the commandment "don't covet" until one acts to acquire the object of the longing.  Maimonides (the Rambam; Spain and Egypt, 12th century) says that "one is guilty only if the coveting is accompanied by deed" (Mishne Torah, Laws of Theft and Lost Property, 1:9).

In Pirkei Avot (4:28), Rabbi Elazar Ha-kappar says: "Ha-kina (envy, for material things), ha-ta'ava (lustful desires) and ha-kavod (the craving for honour) drive a person out of the world."  Rabbi Elazar here touches upon the three major sin areas – material goods, pleasures of the flesh and honour/status.  And indeed, in the Tenth Commandment the warning against coveting applies expressly to the first (house, staff, "cars" [ox and ass]) and the second (wife and maid-servants), and impliedly to the third, status ("or anything that he has").  Even those who interpret coveting as requiring action for culpability acknowledge that the root of bad actions – theft, adultery, even murder – is the initial desire to have what belongs to another.  On the verses about tsitsit (fringes) (Num. 15:40, from the third paragraph of Kr'iat Shema), Rashi quotes the Rabbis: "The eyes are the 'spies' of the body, they act as its agents for sinning – the eyes see, the heart desires [chomed] and the body commits the sin."

The multi-billion dollar industry of advertising is built on this Rashi.  Its purpose is to convince us to want what we don't need and to be dissatisfied with that which is serving us very nicely.  It is no coincidence that advertising very often uses visual images totally unrelated to the product being promoted, exploiting instincts and desires which motivate us la'chmod, to covet.  Mad Men knew their Rashi.

Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb is former Director of, and current teacher at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem.

Posted on 15 February 2017

This blog aims to provide articles of interest on the weekly parashah and issues in Masorti Judaism, representing the full range of diverse views that exist among Masorti members. For guidance on any of the issues raised, please consult your rabbi.

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