The Prohibition against Coveting

The Ten Commandments, which were chosen by HaShem to be the first and the most prominently given of the 613 commandments of the Torah, embody the most basic principles of religious belief and of human civilization. Yet among them is a mitzva which many would be inclined to think is more of a desirable character trait than a foundation of human society – the last of the Ten Commandments which forbids coveting (Shemot 20:14).

An additional enigma is that all of the other prohibitions are those which any civilized person recoils at. It is rare that a person even feels a serious temptation to murder or commit adultery, and any basically moral person who does fall into such a transgression is typically overcome by remorse. Coveting, by contrast, is something so natural that it seems to be a rare person who doesn’t occasionally experience it.

The Ibn Ezra’s commentary explains this commandment in a way which resolves both difficulties. According to the Ibn Ezra, it is exactly because it is so difficult to avoid coveting something which is relevant to us that this mitzva is in effect commanding us in a principle of religious faith: to acknowledge that our neighbor’s belongings and spouse are placed by the Almighty entirely beyond our sphere.

The true commandment is to acknowledge HaShem’s providence in allocating wealth and marriage partners. In fact, these are exactly the two areas which our Sages likened to the “splitting of the Red Sea” because of the special degree of Providence which they demonstrate (Pesachim 118a, Sota 2a). With this acknowledgment, the Ibn Ezra explains, a person will find this mitzva easy to fulfill – just as a simple peasant doesn’t long to marry a princess. But without this acknowledgment, the mitzva will be almost impossible.

THE CHAIN OF PROVIDENCE

We explained in last year’s shiur on parshat Vayishlach, on the prohibition of stealing, that there are two dimensions to this providence: HaShem decides that the owner is either the ideal person to enjoy the benefit of a particular object or the ideal person to take responsibility for bringing it to its destiny in another way, for instance by selling it or giving it away.

Based on this idea, we can understand why the prohibition on coveting is transgressed when we pressure someone to sell personal possessions, even for their full value (SA CM 359:10). While this is not considered stealing, the element of duress in this pressure means that the seller is prevented from exercising the full degree of personal judgment regarding the disposition of his property. Yet this exercise of personal judgment is central to our concept of Divine providence in distributing wealth.

All mankind is certainly obligated to acknowledge HaShem’s providence, and the Sefer HaChinukh explicitly writes that non-Jews too are forbidden to covet, just as they are forbidden to steal (Mitzva 416 on lo titaveh, the twin of lo tachmod). At the same time, some authorities have written that there are subtle differences in the mitzva as it applies among non-Jews. These differences can be explained by the different and complementary roles of Jews and non-Jews in the chain of providence, as we explained in last year’s parshat Vayikra column, on the subject of returning lost objects.

COVETING TORAH

The Zohar notes that only this mitzva among the Ten Commandments details the specific instances of the prohibition: your neighbor’s house and field, etc. From this we infer that there is a kind of coveting which is permitted – coveting someone else’s Torah knowledge (Zohar Yitro, II:93b). This teaches us that Torah knowledge is never beyond our sphere entirely. Regarding the “princess” of Torah, all Jews are royal princes, and not simple peasants.

Rabbi Meir’s book Meaning in Mitzvot is now available as an e-book through Amazon, ibooks, Google Play and B&N.