Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Shavuot 5766/ June 2, 2006

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“You shall not covet, You shall not crave”


Dr. Yisrael Tzvi Gilat


School of Education


On the Feast of Weeks, the festival celebrating our receiving the Torah, we read the Decalogue given to Moses on Mount Sinai, written on “stone tablets inscribed with the finger of G-d” (Ex. 31:18).   The last commandment, “You shall not covet” (Ex. 20:14) raises considerable difficulties for experts in halakhah and aggadah.   Sefer Mitzvot Katan, commandment 19, says in this regard: “Therefore the Decalogue was concluded with ‘you shall not covet,’ to inform you that a person who covets violates all [these commandments], moreover, woe be it to a covetous person, for his entire life is filled with pain and no joy.”  Sefer Orhot Tzadikim (Sha’ar ha-Kin’ah, the chapter on jealousy) says:

The snake in the Garden of Eden … thought to kill Adam and take his wife Eve…   Likewise with Korah, Balaam, Doeg the Edomite, Ahitophel, Absalom, Geihazi, Adoniah, Uzziah, and Haman, all of whom set their eyes on that which was not theirs (thus sealing their bad fate), and needless to say that what they sought was not given them, rather even that which they had was taken from them.

In attempting to understand this proscription several questions arise, some of which we shall discuss below. A major issue was brought up by Sefer Ha-Hinukh (commandment 416):

And do not ask, How can a person prevent his heart from craving any attractive or valuable object that he might see in his neighbor’s possession?  Or, How could the Torah forbid that which a human being does not control?

The second question regards the difference in formulation between this commandment as stated in Exodus 10:14 – “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house” – and in Deuteronomy 5:18 – “You shall not crave your neighbor’s house, or his field, or his male or female slaves or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”   Are craving and coveting the same?   If not, what is the difference between them?

Let us consider the halakhic aspects of this commandment and see what they contribute to resolving these two questions.  Indeed, from Talmudic sources we see that a person is not considered to have violated the prohibition against coveting simply by having such thoughts, nor even by expressing such feelings outwardly in words, but only by accompanying the words with actions.  Thus the Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael (Jethro, ch. 8) says explicitly: [1]   “Perhaps even the mere expressing of one’s desire [for the neighbor’s things] in words is also meant?   Therefore the verse says:   ‘You shall not covet the silver or the gold on them and keep it for yourselves’ (Deut. 7:25).   Just as there only carrying out one’s desire into practice is forbidden, so also here it is forbidden only to carry out the desire into practice.” 

Moreover, the act which by which a person becomes culpable of the prohibition against coveting must be with something that he “acquires and makes his own,” i.e., something for which rights of ownership may be transferred, such as real estate or moveable property, and “something which comes into your possession only through the consent of the [previous] owners.”   As we shall see, one violates the prohibition of coveting specifically when all the terms of sale are present.

Furthermore, we can learn from the remark in the Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 5b – “You shall not covet :  people believe this means without payment,” i.e., people believe the prohibition applies only when the article passed from the seller to the buyer by coercion and without due recompense. However this is not the case – “You shall not covet” is not equivalent to stealing, which is taking against the owners’ will and without compensation. Nor is it taking against the owners’ consent although with due compensation. Rather, the prohibition against coveting is violated even when the seller himself, who had refused to sell at the outset, eventually accedes to the buyer and sells to him.

The question arises:  if ultimately the seller is persuaded to sell, why is coveting in and of itself forbidden?  With such a prohibition, is there not a danger that any and all business transactions in the streets and the market-place might easily turn into a transgression of coveting?   The Talmud offers no explanation of the prohibition against coveting, nor do the halakhic midrashim shed much light on the matter.  Maimonides (Hilkhot Gezelah 1.9) gives the following explanation:   “Anyone who covets another person’s male or female slave, or house, belongings, or anything that he might buy from another person, and guilefully and persistently insists until he has paid him handsomely for the thing – such a person transgresses the proscription, “You shall not covet.” … But he does not violate this prohibition until he takes that which he coveted.”   It appears from Maimonides’ interpretation that precisely the seller’s acquiescence to the whims of the buyer is what trips up the buyer, causing him to sin.  From Rabad’s glosses on this text we see all the more clearly the magnitude of the difficulty in defining the prohibition. [2]

If what we have said regarding not coveting one’s neighbor’s house is correct, then also with regard to not coveting one’s neighbor’s wife a person does not transgress simply by thinking covetously of his neighbor’s wife, nor even by speaking openly of such things.  Only when he actually takes action, i.e., takes the other man’s wife as his own through a proper Jewish wedding, after having attained the first husband’s consent to divorce his wife, does he violate the prohibition. Thus the consent of the woman and her former husband are necessary prerequisites for the prohibition to apply.

We have answered the first problem by explaining that it is not jealous desire alone which is prohibited, but coveting that is turned into action to secure the desired object. Now we move on to the second question.   Talmudic literature does not deal with the definition of craving as opposed to coveting.   Remaining true to the notion that there is a straightforward (peshat) meaning to Scripture, we can easily explain that the tenth commandment is “you shall not covet,” and that “you shall not crave” is not an independent commandment in its own right (an eleventh commandment).  This is the approach taken by the Onkelos Aramaic translation and Rashi’s commentary.   Both view “you shall not crave” as parallel to “you shall not covet.”  The Mekhilta of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai (ch. 20), however, offers a different explanation for this dualism in the text: [3]

(14) It says “you shall not covet” and later says “you shall not crave your neighbor’s house” (Deut. 5:17), to indicate that a person bears responsibility for craving and for coveting, each on its own, ... coveting being to seize hold of what has already been seized [by another] and take it [for oneself].  How do we know that craving ultimately leads to coveting?   Because it says both “do not crave” and “do not covet.”  How do we know that coveting ultimately leads to stealing?  Because it says, “They covet fields and seize them” (Micah 2:2).   Perhaps [the commandment applies to] not craving his [the neighbor’s] daughter and taking her?    Therefore we are taught “your neighbor’s wife,” to indicate that just as your neighbor’s wife is forbidden to you, so too, the law applies to anything that is forbidden to you.

Even according to the Mekhilta of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai, the injunction against craving is not merely against the desire to “seize hold of,” but rather the desire to deprive another person of his rights.   Craving in and of itself is not forbidden when it is directed towards something that is not owned by someone or towards a woman who is available, as the Mekhilta explains:

How do we know that the injunction against craving applies to someone else’s staff, or shoes, or clothing?   Because it says, “or anything that is your neighbor’s.”  Could it mean, he must not say, “I wish I had his eyes, or his hair”?   In this regard it says:   “or his ox or his ass, his male or female servant, his house or his field.”  Just as these specify things that could come into your hands at the expense of your neighbor losing them, so we learn that the proscription applies only to such things that one could acquire at the expense of another person losing them.

On the basis of this argument, Maimonides concludes in Mishne Torah that the proscription against craving exists independently of the proscription against coveting, and he even grades these proscriptions on a scale of relative severity of transgression (Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, negative commandment 266):

This commandment cautions us not to set our thoughts to coveting what our neighbor has, craving it, which would lead to devising ways to purchase it; this explains the cautionary expression used in this regard [in Parashat va-Ethanan], “you shall not crave your neighbor’s house.”  These two commandments of “shall not” do not deal with the same thing; rather the first “shall not,” which is “you shall not covet,” warns us not to buy what our neighbor has, and the second “shall not” warns us even against craving in our heart alone. [4]

The Mekhilta of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai extends the prohibition against craving also to “your neighbor’s wife,” and following this source, Maimonides rules in Hilkhot Gezelah (1:9-10):

Whoever covets his neighbor’s male or female servant, or his house, or his belongings, or anything that could be bought from him, and persistently beguiles him and pleads until he obtains it from him, that person transgresses the commandment, “you shall not covet.”  ... And whoever craves his neighbor’s house or wife or belongings, and any other such things that can be bought from him, having thought to himself how can he acquire this thing, and having been enticed in his heart by the thing, such a person has transgressed the commandment not to crave, craving being in the heart alone.

[1] Horowitz-Rabin edition, pp. 234-235.

[2] For example,cf. Even ha-Ezel (by Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer), Laws of theft and loss, 1.9, who carries forth the argument meticulously on the basis of what Maimonides said.

[3] Epstein-Melamed edition, p. 153.  Also Midrash Tannaim on Deuteronomy, Hoffman ed., p. 24.

[4] For a classification of the views of early rabbinic authorities on the independent standing of “You shall not crave” see:  R.Y. Perlow, Sefer ha-Mitzvot le-Rasag, Part II, p. 224, negative commandment 90;   Rabbi M. M. Kasher, Torah Shelemah, Jethro, notes 394, 398.  Among biblical exegetes, also cf. Ralbag’s commentary on Exodus 20 (Brenner-Cohen edition, p.355).  For other commentaries, see N. Leibowitz, New Studies in Exodus.