What Does “Thou Shalt Not Covet” Mean? And How Can the Torah Prohibit Wanting Something?

In most translations, the tenth commandment of the Decalogue reads, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, or his male or female slave, or his ox or his donkey, or anything that is thy neighbor’s.” This passage has long troubled Jewish commentators reluctant to accept a prohibition that seems to apply to a feeling rather than action; most have suggested that the commandment is not violated until covetousness is acted upon. Analyzing other uses in the Hebrew Bible of the root, ḥ-m-d, normally rendered as covet, Leonard Greenspoon finds evidence for this reading:

The root ḥ-m-d . . . is often paired with an active verb, such as “taking.” [Consider, for instance], Deuteronomy 7:25: “You shall consign the images of their gods to the fire; you shall not covet the silver and gold on them and keep it for yourselves.” . . . Similarly, the pilgrimage law in Exodus states: “I will drive out nations from your path and enlarge your territory; no one will covet your land when you go up to appear before the Lord your God three times a year.” The point is that traveling to appear before God leaves the land vulnerable, giving an outsider the opportunity to covet and take the land while the owner is away. Thus, God promises that the land will be safe during the owner’s pilgrimage.

A particularly telling source is the passage in the book of Micah that describes how those who covet other people’s property go about robbing them of it: “Ah, those who contemplate iniquity and design evil on their beds; when morning dawns, they do it, for they have the power. They covet fields, and seize them; houses, and take them away. They defraud men of their homes, and people of their land.” Here contemplating evil and implementing evil stratagems go together the same way that coveting and theft do. It seems likely, therefore, that [there is] an assumption in the biblical text that coveting entails acting on this emotion. In this reading, biblical coveting does not refer to a person just desiring something in the abstract, but to planning or taking concrete steps with which to acquire that object.

This shade of meaning, writes Greenspoon, is lost in the Septuagint—the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible that has informed Gentile readers for centuries:

The Septuagint translators employ the verb epithumeo [for “covet”], which the Greek-English Lexicon of the Septuagint translates as “to set one’s heart upon, to long for, to desire.” The Greek verb epithumeo is different from the English verb “covet” since it can be used for positive as well as negative desires. . . . For this reason, readers interpreting the Greek Bible (as opposed to the Hebrew version) were likely to miss the specific connection between ḥ-m-d and “taking.”

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More about: Hebrew Bible, Septuagint, Ten Commandments, Translation

Palestinian Acceptance of Israel as the Jewish State Must Be a Prerequisite to Further Negotiations

Oct. 19 2018

In 1993, in the early days of the Oslo peace process, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) under Yasir Arafat accepted the “right of the state of Israel to exist in peace and security.” But neither it nor its heir, the Palestinians Authority, has ever accepted Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, or the right of the Jewish people to self-determination. Robert Barnidge explains why this distinction matters:

A Jewish state for the Jewish people, after all, was exactly what the [UN] General Assembly intended in November 1947 when it called for the partition of the Palestine Mandate into “the Arab state, the Jewish state, and the city of Jerusalem.”

Although the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state does not stand or fall on this resolution—in declaring the independence of Israel on the eve of the Sabbath on May 14, 1948, the Jewish People’s Council, [the precursor to the Israeli government], also stressed the Jewish people’s natural and historic rights—it reaffirms the legitimacy of Jewish national rights in (what was to become) the state of Israel.

The Palestinians have steadfastly refused to recognize Jewish self-determination. [Instead], the PLO [has been] playing a double game. . . . It is not simply that the PLO supported the General Assembly’s determination in 1975, rescinded in 1991, that “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.” It is that that the PLO leadership continues to speak of Jews as a religious community rather than a people, and of Zionism as a colonial usurper rather than the national liberation movement that it is.

The U.S. government, Barnidge concludes, “should demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel’s right to exist in peace and security as a Jewish state” and refuse to “press Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians unless and until that happens.”

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More about: Israel & Zionism, Peace Process, PLO, US-Israel relations, Yasir Arafat