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 Leaders Fight Economic Growth

Jan. 15 2019

This month, a new shopping mall opened in northeastern Jerusalem, easily accessible to most of the city’s Arab residents. Rami Levy, the supermarket magnate who owns the mall, already employs some 2,000 Israeli Arabs and Palestinians at his other stores, and the mall will no doubt bring more jobs to Arab Jerusalemites. But the leaders of the Palestinian Authority (PA) are railing against it, and one newspaper calls its opening “an economic catastrophe [nakba].” Bassam Tawil writes:

For [the PA president] Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah officials . . . the image of Palestinians and Jews working in harmony is loathsome. . . . Instead of welcoming the inauguration of the shopping mall for providing job opportunities to dozens of Palestinians and lower prices [to consumers], Fatah officials are taking about an Israeli plan to “undermine” the Palestinian economy. . . . The hundreds of Palestinians who flooded the new mall on its first day, however, seem to disagree with the grim picture painted by [these officials]. . . .

The campaign of incitement against Levy’s shopping mall began several months ago, as it was being built, and has continued until today. Now that the campaign has failed to prevent the opening of the mall, Fatah and its followers have turned to outright threats and violence. The threats are being directed toward Palestinian shoppers and Palestinian merchants who rented space in the new mall. On the day the mall was opened, Palestinians threw a number of firebombs at the compound, [which] could have injured or killed Palestinians. The [bomb-throwers], who are believed to be affiliated with Fatah, would rather see their own people dead than having fun or buying attractively-priced products at an Israeli mall.

By spearheading this campaign of incitement and intimidation, Abbas’s Fatah is again showing its true colors. How is it possible to imagine that Abbas or any of his Fatah lieutenants would ever make peace with Israel when they cannot even tolerate the idea of Palestinians and Jews working together for a simple common good? If a Palestinian who buys Israeli milk is a traitor in the eyes of Fatah, it is not difficult to imagine the fate of any Palestinian who would dare to discuss compromise with Israel.

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More about: East Jerusalem, Israeli Arabs, Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian Authority, Palestinian economy