Introduction: The Source and Significance of the Mitzvah

The prohibition of lo tachmod (do not covet), is the last of the ten commandments that G‑d instructed the Jews on Mount Sinai. It is considered a grave offense, as Maimonides writes:

Coveting leads to robbery. For if the owners do not desire to sell, despite a generous offer and much supplication, motivated by a desire for the item, a person may revert to robbery, as it states in the book of Michah: "They coveted houses and they stole."1 And if the owner were to resist and attempt to save his property..., then the perpetrators may be moved to murder.2

Along similar lines, Rabbeinu Bechaye (1255-1340) suggests that the reason lo tachmod is the last of the Ten Commandments is because it is commensurate to the other nine and serves to protect them. One who has a strong desire for money and material possessions will not let anything stand in his way. Ultimately, he will come to transgress the other nine commandments in order to obtain the object of his desire.3

This prohibition—as the last of the Ten Commandments—is recorded twice in the Torah.

Once in Parshat Yitro: "You shall not covet your neighbor's house. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, or whatever belongs to your neighbor."4

And again in Parshat Va'etchanan, where the Torah records the Ten Commandments with some variation a second time: “And you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, nor shall you desire your neighbor's house, his field, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”5

Two Prohibitions or One?

The most striking difference between the two versions of this prohibition is that while in Parshat Yitro the verse uses only the term, tachmod, in Parshat Va'etchanan, after the Torah states lo tachmod—“you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife,” the Torah adds an additional phrase, “lo titaveh,” you shall not desire your neighbor’s house, field, etc.

Since these words have very similar translations, some Rishonim (early scholars) argue that lo tachmod and lo titaveh are one and the same prohibition; however, others maintain that the differential wording specifies two distinct prohibitions.

The Yereim (Rabbi Eliezer of Metz, 1115-1175), the Semag (Rabbi Moshe of Coucy, 1200-1260) and the Semak (Rabbi Yitzchak of Corbeil, 1210-1280)—in their respective works enumerating the mitzvot—are all of the opinion that there is only one prohibition, referring to coveting an object, taking actions to obtain the object and successfully obtaining it.6

On the other hand, Maimonides (1138-1204) and the Sefer Hachinuch both maintain that there are in fact two distinct prohibitions: lo titaveh and lo tachmod. Lo titaveh refers only to the desire, while lo tachmod refers to one who covets an object and ultimately obtains it.7

Within this approach—that there are in fact two distinct prohibitions—there exists some discussion as to the exact nature of the prohibition of lo titaveh.

The Prohibition of Lo Titaveh

The language of both the Sefer Hachinuch and Maimonides (in his Sefer Hamitzvot), imply that the prohibition is simply against desiring that which belongs to someone else. However, Maimonides, in his magnum opus, Yad Hachazakah, as well as other subsequent Halachic authorities, write that one only transgresses lo titaveh if one entertained thoughts about how to actually obtain the item. Simply desiring the object, does not violate the prohibition of lo titaveh.8

The Semak, in support of his opinion (that there are not in fact two separate prohibitions), notes that the verses only use the words lo tachmod in reference to a married woman. While with respect to a neighbor’s house (and other possessions), the Torah uses both lo titaveh and lo tachmod. The Semak argues that if we say, as Maimonides does, that lo titaveh and lo tachmod refer to two separate forbidden behaviors, then with respect to a married woman there exists only the prohibition of lo tachmod (acting on the desirous thoughts), but lo titaveh would not apply; yet, in respect to other people’s possessions both would apply. The Semak argues that it is inconceivable that the Torah would have a harsher attitude towards desiring another person’s possessions than towards another person’s spouse.9

The Semak’s question on Maimonides is based on his premise that lo titaveh is an independent prohibition, and since it is not stated in reference to a married woman it must mean that lo titaveh does not apply to a married woman.

However, his question falls away when we consider that Maimonides himself explicitly writes that lo titaveh applies to a married woman as well. Rabbi Avraham ben Rabbi Moshe di Boton (1545-1588), in his commentary on Maimonides—Lechem Mishneh, explains the following: even though the words lo titaveh are not explicitly stated in reference to a married woman, it is nevertheless included in the prohibition of lo titaveh since it is included in the final words of the verse, “and all that belongs to your neighbor.”10

In support of Maimonides, it must be noted that (as Maimonides himself references in his Sefer Hamitzvot), his position that lo titaveh and lo tachmod are two distinct prohibitions is not his own invention; it is sourced in the Tannaic Beraita Mechilta Derashbi.11

The Shulchan Aruch and subsequent Halachic authorities all rule in accordance with Maimonides, that there are in fact two distinct prohibitions; one prohibition being lo tachmod, which means not to make efforts to obtain that which is not yours, and the second prohibition of lo titaveh, forbidding any thoughts of obtaining the item.12

From a strict legal standpoint there is no prohibition to merely desire another person’s possessions, as long as one does not entertain thoughts about obtaining it.

This concludes (in general terms) our discussion of the prohibition of lo titaveh. The remainder of this article will focus on the prohibition of lo tachmod.

What is Actually Forbidden?

As mentioned, an individual only transgresses the prohibition of lo tachmod if one makes an active effort to obtain the object of his or her desire. Moreover, the prohibition is transgressed only if a person’s efforts result in obtaining the object of one’s desire.

The Mechilta (A Midrash of Halachot from the period of the Mishna), derives this from a verse regarding coveting idols: “And you shall not covet and take them for yourself.”13 The Mechilta extrapolates: Just as in the scenario of idols the coveting involves subsequent possession of the idol, so too in the case of lo tachmod one must actually acquire the item.14

This notwithstanding, the Semak implies that while one does not fully transgress the prohibition unless actions are taken to obtain the object, coveting alone is still included in the prohibition of lo tachmod.15

This position seems difficult to understand: Since the Semak cites the Mechilta stating that one only transgresses the prohibition if the desire is followed by an act to obtain the object, why then does he maintain that even the desire in and of itself is forbidden due to lo tachmod?

One resolution is based on the principle of, “chatzi shiur assur min hatorah” (lit: a half measure is biblically prohibited): For example, when the Torah prohibits eating a forbidden food, it is generally understood that someone only violates it by eating an olive-sized amount. There is a dispute in the Talmud regarding the law of one who eats less than this amount. All opinions agree that it is forbidden to eat even a miniscule amount of the forbidden food; however, the rabbis argue as to whether it is prohibited by biblical or rabbinic law.16 The Halacha follows the opinion that chatzi shiur osur min hatorah—eating less than an olive-sized amount is forbidden biblically; however, one is only liable for punishment by consuming an olive-sized amount.17

Similarly, in the opinion of the Semak it is argued that even though lo tachmod is only fully transgressed by acquiring the item of one’s desire, nonetheless, the desire itself is forbidden under the principle of chatzi shiur osur min hatorah.18

What if One Pays for the Item?

It has been established that according to most authorities lo tachmod is not simply a prohibition against desiring or coveting another person’s possessions; rather, it is a prohibition against making efforts which result in obtaining the object of one’s desire.

The Rishonim, however, argue as to the exact parameters of the prohibition:

The Talmud, in Bava Metzia (the only place in the Talmud where the prohibition of lo tachmod is discussed), states that people assume that lo tachmod is only transgressed if one doesn’t pay for the item.19

According to Tosafot, when the Talmud states that, “People assume lo tachmod applies only when the item is not paid for,” it is to be understood to mean that this is indeed the case.

In Tosafot’s opinion, one only transgresses lo tachmod by not paying for the item.20 (This does not mean, that according to Tosafot, if one pays for an item it is therefore permitted to forcibly take it against the owner’s will. It simply means that it is not a transgression of the prohibition of lo tachmod.)

However, most other authorities (including Maimonides and the Raavad) argue with Tosafot and take the Talmud at face value. In their opinion, when the Talmud states that, “People assume lo tachmod is only transgressed when one doesn’t pay for the item,” it means that people mistakenly think that lo tachmod does not apply when one doesn’t pay for the item. In truth, lo tachmod is transgressed even if one pressures somebody into selling an item that he wasn’t originally interested in selling, ultimately paying its full value.

Even among these authorities there are two opinions. Maimonides makes no distinction between a scenario in which the seller ultimately agrees to the sale or if he forcibly takes the item and leaves money for the “seller.”21 On the other hand, the Raavad (1125-1198) takes a “middle-ground” position, maintaining that a person does indeed transgress lo tachmod even if one pays for the object he covets. If, however, the seller agreed to the sale, the buyer would not transgress lo tachmod, notwithstanding the fact that the “buyer” was pressuring the “seller” into doing so.22

The final Halacha, as codified by the Shulchan Aruch and subsequent Halachic authorities, follows the opinion of Maimonides—one transgresses lo tachmod even in a scenario where one pressured somebody into selling an object and the “seller” ultimately agreed to the sale.23

The Punishment for Lo Tachmod

The above dispute between Maimonides and the Raavad reflects their respective opinions in a seemingly unrelated disagreement: As a general rule, the punishment for any negative transgression is lashes. While both Maimonides and the Raavad agree that lo tachmod is an exception to this rule, they provide divergent rationales for this.

Maimonides explains that lo tachmod is a negative prohibition that does not involve any action, therefore there are no lashes administered.24 This is based on the general principle, repeated a number of times in the Talmud, that one does not receive lashes for a prohibition that does not involve an action—a lav sheyn bo maaseh.25 If a negative prohibition does not entail action, but only thought or speech, then it falls into the category of lav sheyn bo maaseh and is not subject to the punishment of lashes.

But as the Raavad points out, this is extremely difficult to understand: how can lo tachmod be considered a lav sheyn bo maaseh if the only way to transgress lo tachmod is to actually take the object!?

Therefore, the Raavad argues, there must be a different reason why there are no lashes administered in this case. He explains that this follows the general rule applied to a lav shenitan letashlumin, a prohibition which may be compensated for by reimbursing the original owner. Any prohibition which obligates reimbursement is not subject to the punishment of lashes.26 Since the perpetrator must give the item back (or reimburse the value), it falls under this general rule.

Rabbi Vidal of Toulouse (1300-1370), known as the Maggid Mishneh (after his commentary on Maimonides by that name), defends Maimonides’ rationale. He explains that this dispute between Maimonides and the Raavad actually hinges upon their earlier argument as to when lo tachmod applies, as follows.

According to Maimonides—who maintains that one transgresses lo tachmod even if the seller ultimately agrees to sell the item—in such a case taking the object was not in itself a forbidden act, since the seller ultimately agreed to the sale. Here, the forbidden “act” would only be the pressure exerted on the seller. The pressure exerted on the seller falls in the category of “speech,” not action, and makes the transgression a lav sheyn bo maaseh—a negative prohibition involving no action. Therefore, there are no lashes administered for lo tachmod.

It is now also understood why Maimonides did not explain the reason why there is no lashes for lo tachmod as due to it being a lav hanitan letashlumin - a prohibition that requires monetary retribution (as the Raavad does), since in this scenario there would be no obligation to return the item to the seller, since he willingly agreed to the sale.

On the other hand, according to the Raavad, who maintains that one only transgresses lo tachmod in a scenario where the seller did not agree to the sale (i.e., he was coerced), the act of taking the item was forbidden; therefore, the transgression of lo tachmod necessarily requires an action to be taken. As a result, the Raavad could not explain that it is a lav sheyn bo maaseh, but rather explains that it is a lav hanitan letashlumin. In the Raavad’s case, in which the seller did not agree to the sale, the “buyer” would be obligated to return the item he took and thus lo tachmod can be rightfully classified as a lav hanitan letashlumin.27

Rabbi Yosef Babad (1801-1874), known as the Minchat Chinuch (after the name of his commentary on the Sefer Hachinuch) poses the following question on the Maggid Mishneh’s explanation:

While it is true that in Maimonides’ opinion lo tachmod also applies in a scenario where one pressures a sale and ultimately secures consent, it is also clear from Maimonides that the prohibition applies equally in a scenario where the seller did not agree to the sale. Maimonides explicitly writes that one who steals an object that he had coveted and had attempted to purchase, does trangesses lo tachmod. That being the case, how can Maimonides simply state that lo tachmod is not subject to lashes since no act is connected to it, when in the instance where the seller did not agree to the sale, the transgressor commited a forbidden act by forcibly taking the object from him?

Minchat Chinuch assumes that in such a scenario, even according to the Maggid Mishneh, Maimonides would have to agree that the reason there are no lashes administered to the transgressor is due to the fact that it is a prohibition that requires one to return the object he took, as the Raavad writes. However, as the Minchat Chinuch himself asks, this too is difficult to understand, since if this were the case Maimonides should have stated so. Why does Maimonides suffice simply with stating that lo tachmod has no lashes administered because it is a lav sheyn bo maaseh, when that rationale does not apply to all cases of lo tachmod?28

Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski (1863-1940) and other later day authorities explain this conundrum as follows: The fact that according to Maimonides one transgresses lo tachmod even if the seller agreed to the sale, proves that in his opinion the prohibition of lo tachmod is not the act of actually taking the object, rather, it is the pressure that one exerts on the person leading up to the forced sale. However, one only transgresses the prohibition if one’s pressure is so extreme that it actually results in obtaining the item.This is in fact what the Maggid Mishneh meant all along, the issue here, vis-a-vis la tachmod, is never the act of taking the item; it is the pressure exerted in order to obtain it.

Even in a scenario where the seller does not agree to the sale, the prohibition of lo tachmod is not the act of taking the object but rather the desire and pressure exerted. Therefore it is considered a lav sheyn bo maaseh and no lashes are administered.

In other words: Maimonides and the Raavad argue about the nature of the prohibition of lo tachmod. According to Raavad, the prohibition is taking something from someone against his will after having exerted pressure to sell the item. According to Maimonides, the prohibition is against pressuring somebody to sell an item. However, lo tachmod is only transgressed if the pressure is such that it results in obtaining the object. It is now readily understood why according to Maimonides lo tachmod is considered a lav sheyn bo maaseh in all cases.

We can now also readily understand why Maimonides could not explain lo tachmod to be a lav shenitan letashlumin, for even in a case in which someone forcibly took the item, the fact that he is obligated to return the item is not due to a transgression of lo tachmod, but rather due to violating the prohibition against stealing.

According to the Raavad, it is understood that a) it cannot be considered a lav sheyn bo maaseh, being that the prohibition is the actual taking of the object against the seller's will. Also, b) it is considered a lav shenitan letashlumin, since the perpetrator would be obligated to return the object and this obligation stems from the prohibition of lo tachmod.29

Pressure to Gift

As noted previously, according to Maimonides and the Shulchan Aruch, lo tachmod applies even in a scenario where one pressures someone to sell an item and the seller consented to the sale. However, the question arises as to whether this would also apply in a scenario where one pressures an individual to gift an item.

Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan (1839-1933), known as the Chafetz Chaim (after the name of one of his works on the laws of lashon hora) discusses the scenario of a prospective son-in-law who pressures his father-in-law to gift him items not included in their original marriage agreement. The Chafetz Chaim writes that while this is quite a common practice, it is in fact forbidden, because it transgresses the prohibition of lo tachmod. The Chafetz Chaim takes for granted that lo tachmod does not exclusively apply to the case of a sale.30

This is supported by the language used by one of the Rishonim, Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerondi (1200-1263) in his ethical treatise, Shaarei Teshuva, which includes pressuring somebody to give an item in the prohibition of lo tachmod.31

Although Maimonides and subsequent Halachic authorities write that the prohibition of lo tachmod refers to one who pressures somebody to sell an object, it has been cogently argued that this would apply in the case of a gift, too. According to Maimonides—as evidenced by the fact that in his opinion lo tachmod applies even when the person ultimately willingly sells it—the prohibition is against pressuring somebody to sell an item that the owner doesn’t originally want to sell. There is no reason, therefore, to differentiate between pressuring someone to sell or gift an item.32

On the other hand, Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Alter, the fourth Gerer Rebbe (known as the Imrei Emes, 1866-1948), was of the opinion that the prohibition only applies when pressuring somebody to sell an item, as the straightforward reading of Maimonides implies.

As to the fact that Rabbeinu Yonah seems to understand that even pressuring someone to give a gift is prohibited, the Gerer Rebbe argued that it is possible that it is a lone opinion, or alternatively, Rabbeinu Yonah was not stating that it is prohibited, rather, that it would be midat chasidut, pious conduct, not to pressure somebody to give a present.33

Why should there be a difference between pressuring somebody to gift an item and pressuring somebody to sell an item?

In a responsum from Rabbi Bezalel Stern (1911-1989) a possible explanation for this is found. He makes the distinction between one who pressures somebody to sell an object—in which case it is clear that his desire for the object is so strong that he is willing to pay for the item—and one who is not willing to pay for the item, in which case his desire for the object is evidently not as strong, therefore in such a case one would not be in violation of lo tachmod.34

A contemporary rabbi, Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch (born 1928), offers an alternative explanation: He argues that when one pressures somebody to sell an object, the prospective seller is under more pressure to relinquish the object (since he is receiving monetary compensation). Therefore, even in a scenario where he subsequently agrees, he does not do so wholeheartedly. In the scenario of one who is pressured to give a gift, however, the pressure is less, so when he does agree to give the gift, he gives it willingly.35

What is Considered Pressure?

As noted earlier, according to Maimonides and the Shulchan Aruch, one transgresses the prohibition of lo tachmod even if one pressures somebody to sell an object and that person subsequently agrees to the sale. But what exactly constitutes pressure that would be considered forbidden?

Rabbi Nochum Weidenfeld (1875-1939) seems to have understood the language of Maimonides and the Shulchan Aruch to mean that one only transgresses lo tachmod if one involves others in a scheme to apply pressure.36

However, most authorities disagree and understand that according to Maimonides and the Shulchan Aruch any form of pressure is forbidden. Indeed, Rabbi Schneur Zalman, the Alter Rebbe—when paraphrasing Maimonides—clearly writes that it is forbidden to either pressure directly or to involve others.37

Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein (1829-1908), known as the Aruch Hashulchan, writes that one should be careful to avoid purchasing anything from anybody who is not a vendor, unless it is made clear that he is willing to sell the item.38

Still, as many later day authorities note, it is clear from the wording of Maimonides that one only transgresses the prohibition of lo tachmod if actual pressure is applied. It follows that simply inquiring into the status of an item would not transgress the prohibition of lo tachmod.

Some authorities are of the opinion that asking twice is already considered a violation of lo tachmod.39 Others argue that one only transgresses the prohibition of lo tachmod by asking a third time.40

There is a possible exception to this rule. Rabbeinu Yonah writes that a respectable person should not inquire whether an object is for sale if the stature of the prospective buyer would make it difficult for the seller to refuse the sale.41 Although some authorities42 understand Rabbeinu Yonah to be exhorting a person regarding proper conduct, the simple reading of Rabbeinu Yonah suggests that it is indeed prohibited.

Which Items are Subject to this Prohibition?

In Parshat Yitro, after stating “do not covet,” the Torah lists specific items: a house, a servant etc., concluding by saying: “and all that is to your friend.”

This is difficult to understand: either only specific items fall under the purview of lo tachmod or “anything that belongs to your friend,” which is accurate?

The Mechilta (a Midrash of halachot from the period of the Mishnah) addresses this question based on one of the thirteen methods of Torah elucidation: “klal prat uklal”—a comprehensive statement followed by a specification, followed by another comprehensive statement. Any time a verse states a law as a general statement, implying that it applies in all circumstances and then quantifies it by applying it only in certain circumstances and then concludes with a general statement, this principle tells us that in such a case, only scenarios similar to the examples given are included in the general statement.

Thus the opening words, “do not covet,” would appear to be a general statement that applies universally. The examples given, “his house, his servant, his maidservant, etc.,” are specifications. Finally, the Torah concludes with another general statement, “everything that belongs to your friend”; therefore, this would include anything similar to the examples given.43

Coveting a Spouse

The Torah explicitly prohibits coveting a married woman. As mentioned earlier, however, the Halacha follows the opinion that lo tachmod is only transgressed if one obtains the object he covets.

Being that it is extremely unlikely that a person will prevail on his fellow to divorce his wife, it is therefore extremely difficult for a person to transgress lo tachmod in this respect.

This actually serves to explain a difficulty in the way Maimonides cites this Halacha: As noted, lo tachmod is explicitly mentioned with respect to a married woman, however lo titaveh is not. Maimonides, interestingly, does exactly the opposite; when detailing lo titaveh he makes reference to a married woman; when discussing the prohibition of lo tachmod he does not make reference to a married woman.

The Minchat Chinuch explains that since the Torah explicitly states lo tachmod with regard to a married woman, Maimonides doesn't feel the need to list it. However, in the case of lo titaveh where the Torah makes no mention of it, Maimonides felt the need to emphasize that lo titaveh does indeed apply to a married woman as well.44

Rabbi Yehoshua Falk (1555-1614) writes a more intuitive explanation: Since a scheme to marry an already married woman is unlikely to yield success (as explained above), it is unnecessary for Maimonides to specify such a scenario when discussing lo tachmod. However, entertaining thoughts about how to do so is a much more common occurrence and as such Maimonides does specify this in the context of lo titaveh.45

Are Non-Jews Obligated?

The Sefer Hachinuch writes that although the prohibition of lo titaveh is not included in the Seven Noahide Laws, nevertheless, non-Jews are included in this prohibition, since it is a subcategory of the prohibition against stealing (which is one of the Seven Noahide Laws).46

Although the Sefer Hachinuch only writes this regarding lo titaveh and not lo tachmod, nevertheless, as the Minchat Chinuch points out, it is clear from the reasoning of the Sefer Hachinuch that this would also be the case in regard to lo tachmod. If lo titaveh—which does not involve any action—is considered to be a subcategory of theft, then all the more so lo tachmod, which does involve action, would be considered a subcategory of theft.47

Beyond the Letter of the Law

At the outset we noted how according to all Halachic authorities lo tachmod refers only to one who ultimately obtains the object of his desire. Even lo titaveh is only transgressed if one entertains thoughts of how to obtain the object; simply coveting the object does not transgress either of these two prohibitions. Nevertheless, we also noted that according to the Smak and Sefer Hachinuch even coveting alone is included in the prohibition. Moreover, both Rabbeinu Bechaye and the Ibn Ezra, in their respective commentaries to Parshat Yitro, explain the prohibition of lo tachmod to be simply against desiring that which belongs to another, even if no actions to obtain the object are taken.48

Although generally speaking, the interpretations of the commentators of the Torah do not have halachic import, and from the Shulchan Aruch and subsequent authorities it is clear that it is technically not forbidden to desire another's possessions, it is nonetheless understood that it is not within the spirit of the law to do so. Indeed we find that Halachic authorities and ethicists write that it is midat chasidut—appropriate behavior, not to desire another's possessions.49

But as the Ibn Ezra himself questions, how is this possible? Surely it is not in our control whether we feel desire for someone else’s possessions or not!?

The Ibn Ezra explains that in fact it is well within our control. He explains this based on an allegory of a simple village person who knows that it is totally unfeasible for him to marry the daughter of the king, and as such would never express any desire to marry her. Similarly, if a person integrates within himself the notion that whatever possessions he does have are meant for him, and those possessions that belong to someone else have no connection to him at all, it will follow that he will have no desire whatsoever for another’s possessions.50