In Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, the Ten Commandments appear in their most recognizable form. Among the differences between the two occurrences is that Deuteronomy prohibits both coveting and craving, whereas Exodus mentions only coveting. Jeffrey Tigay's commentary on Deuteronomy (The JPS Torah Commentary, p. 72) paraphrases the commandment as "Do not scheme to acquire... do not long for." Both versions appear to forbid a mental state or, in other words, what one should think about.
Some commentaries distinguish coveting from craving as an organizing principle for the Ten Commandments. The Mechilta, the legal midrashon Exodus, explains that if a person craves something, ultimately that person will covet it. If the person covets it, ultimately she or he will steal it. Each level leads to the next, until all the Ten Commandments are broken. Here the connection between action and thought becomes apparent. Simply prohibiting activities does not prevent sinning because we are motivated by our thoughts and emotions. Better to refrain from those intangible, mental catalysts that lead us astray.
Similarly, Rabbi J. H. Hertz, in his twentieth-century commentary, claims that the Tenth Commandment prohibits "anything that we cannot get in an honest and legal manner." He asserts that the law "goes to the root of all evil actions--the unholy instincts of predatory desire, which are the spring of nearly every sin against a neighbor." (The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, p. 300)
The medieval biblical commentators Ibn Ezra and Sforno view the prohibition of coveting as forbidding the desire for specific objects. Ibn Ezra begins by noting that we must wonder how the Torah can forbid the desire for something delightful to the eye. After all, the delights of the senses are a gift from God. But a student must train himself or herself to suppress longing for objects that God has not planned for us to possess. Thus avoiding coveting is a matter of training that should begin in early childhood, a lesson that parents today would do well to inculcate in their children. Similarly, Sforno tells us that we should simply view everything that belongs to someone else as beyond our reach. The issue is not that we desire things in general but that we desire specific objects or persons that God has prohibited us to have.
Alternatively, the nineteenth-century commentator Malbim distinguishes between coveting and craving not as degrees of emotional intensity, as the Mechilta does, but as a result of an internal or external driver--either imagination or sight. We do not covet our neighbor's spouses as a result of our imagination: It is only when we see another person in the flesh that we covet that person. But we can covet our neighbor's wealth by imagining what it would be like to possess it ourselves without actually experiencing that sensation. Hence both coveting and craving are common sins in our affluent society.
The Torah generally requires the avoidance of particular actions rather than of thoughts. But in the prohibition of coveting, we recognize a fundamental emotion or thinking pattern that plays a major role in our transgressions against God and our neighbors. For that reason, it assumes a place in the most important law code of the Torah.
Questions for Discussion
- How might coveting lead to the transgression of each of the other Ten Commandments?
- Can you think of some other "mental" commandments in the Torah?
- If coveting involves something specific that belongs to someone else, discuss one thing that each of your family members covets and the damage such coveting might cause to your family and others.
- Family Shabbat discussion: Is coveting a particularly grievous issue in modern life. Why?
Mark H. Levin is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Torah in Overland Park, KS.