Contemporary Reflections on the Tenth Commandment[1] by Rabbi Elchanan Poupko


Kol Torah is proud to present an article by a leading member of Yeshiva University’s Kollel, Rabbi Elchanan Poupko, on a relevant contemporary topic.

The prohibition of Lo Tachmod, you shall not covet (Shemot 20:14 and Devarim 5:18), is well known both for its personal significance and as one of the Ten Commandments. This prohibition is widely known and regarded, and is one that captures the mind of both Halachic deciders and Chumash commentators (see Ibn Ezra to the verse above). Contrary to the way it is commonly understood, the prohibition of Lo Tachmod is one that has clear, definable and measurable parameters; although many think that what constitutes this prohibition is simply wanting what someone else has, when taking a look at Rishonim and Posekim, we see otherwise.

The prohibition of Lo Tachmod as described by Rambam (Hilchot Gezeilah VaAveidah 1:9) and codified by the Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 359:9) only forbids a very specific case. A person violates the prohibition if he sees an object that belongs to someone else and is not for sale, yet he wants to acquire this object. If the person beseeched the owner and convinced him to sell the desired object, he has violated the biblical prohibition of Lo Tachmod. This is true even if the buyer pays in full or greater for the object acquired (Sefer Meirat Einayim ad loc. footnote 14). As long as the seller had no intention to sell the object and did so only as a result of the buyer’s pressure, the prohibition of Lo Tachmod is in effect. It is important to note that although the prohibition of Lo Tachmod appears in the Ten Commandments mentioned in Parashat Yitro (Shemot 20:14) and in Parashat VaEtchanan (Devarim 5:18) the two are counted as separate and distinguishable prohibitions in the list of 613 - one as Lo Tachmod and the other as Lo Tit’aveh (Rambam Sefer HaMitzvot, Lavin 265-266). As mentioned, the prohibition of Lo Tachmod takes place only once the desired object has switched ownership, do to undesirable circumstances, the prohibition of Lo Titaveh takes place in the earlier stage includes the plotting to acquire the object and the expressed desire to so do.

While this prohibition seems to be simple and straightforward, its applicability in the modern day economy must be defined more carefully. It is easy to understand how this prohibition would apply to classic assets such as homes, oxen, and other tangible objects. In an economy where so much is based on intangible things such as credit, intellectual property, and the securing of valuables, it is important to inquire whether or not this prohibition applies to these assets that are so characteristic of and integral to a modern-day economy.

The rationale to make this distinction may be a reasonable one both because the Pasuk mentions only tangible possessions and because we see in other areas of Halachah that these intangible assets are not always treated the same way as tangible assets (which are protected under a different set of Halachic guidelines- see Rabbi Z.N. Goldberg’s article in Techumin vol. 6). There is no question that the spirit of this law strongly discourages a person from pursuing anything that is not on the free market, but whether or not acquiring the above desirables is forbidden, is something that must be determined.

The Mechilta DeRashbi on Shemot 20:14 tells us, “This might include not saying I wish my eye were like his eye or I wish my hair would be like his. The verse explicitly states, ‘His ox and his donkey, his servant and maid, his house and his field’ to include only the designated things [like those listed above] that can come into your possession, and [when they do], your fellow lacks them.” A clear definition of Lo Tachmod is given by this Mechilta which includes only items that are tangible and whose acquisition by another party causes the previous owner to lose them.

This clearly shows that items that are intangible and are therefore not in this category do not fall under the prohibition of Lo Tachmod. The practical implication of this is that intangible things like patents, other intellectual property, and occupations and positions, although protected under the laws of intellectual property and other Halachic guidelines, would probably not be protected under the commandment of Lo Tachmod (see Aruch HaShulchan Choshen Mishpat 359:9 Se’if 10).

The greatest implication this understanding would have on a modern day economy would be in the field of finance and credit cards. While we all take finances very seriously as the vehicle through which our modern day economy functions, it is important to know that credit and money transfers today are not what they used to be. While money exchanges, even in much of the modern era, were done with tangible money - coins of copper, silver, and gold, or even exchange notes - credit is today’s money and it is not necessarily present or tangible at the time of the exchange. This being the case, it would seem to be that in any case in which a person seeks credit from another who has no interest in giving that credit would not fall under Lo Tachmod. This is especially relevant to the issue of fundraising and asking people for donations that they were not planning on giving.

At first glance, it would seem like pressing someone to contribute to a certain cause is an outright violation of Lo Tachmod as the person had not intended to give the donation, and may very possibly have not given it without having been pressured. However, since the usual donation is given as a check or through a credit card, one can easily argue that there is no violation of Lo Tachmod since there is no tangible item that the asking party is coveting; all they want is a certain amount of credit that the donor has in the bank, which is very much not tangible, and is therefore not a part of the prohibition of Lo Tachmod.

There are also those that argue that there is no prohibition in the case of fundraising for a charitable cause based on a well-known Halachic concept found originally in Bava Batra (7b, codified by the Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Dei’ah 248:1). The Gemara states that if a person refuses to give any Tzedakah, the Beit Din may force him to do so in accordance with his ability. Similarly, some Posekim (Rav Tzvi Fromer, She’eilot UTeshuvot Eretz Tzvi Siman 4) argue that if there is a person who should be giving Tzedakah, there is no prohibition in trying to strongly persuade him to give more of it. This leniency, however, would only apply in a case where donation is helping an Ani that is in a genuine need of Tzedakah.

Another perspective that would pertain to fundraising and the prohibition of Lo Tachmod is one of very broad implications and emanates from the following fundamental question: Is the prohibition against coveting another’s belongings intended to prohibit an acquisition, or is it designed to prohibit a behavior? When the Torah says Lo Tachmod, is it coming to prohibit the final transfer of an object against the will of the owner, or is it a prohibition against pressuring someone to sell something they have no interest in selling (see essay by Rabbi Rosenzweig, Beit Yitzchak vol. 19 who discusses this matter in depth).

The Nafka Minah, practical difference, is a case such as the following: A person wants somebody’s belonging and has a third party pressure the owner to sell. The first person then purchases the item which was only put up for sale because of the third party’s pressure. If the prohibition is the behavior, then the third party, despite not ending up with the coveted object, violated the prohibition. If, however, the prohibition forbids taking the object out of the owner’s possession without his fullest consent, then the original person who ended up purchasing the object is at fault.

Prominent Posekim (She’eilot UTeshuvot Betzel HaChochmah Siman 45 and an oral Pesak from Rabbi Z.N. Goldberg) suggest that the implication of the Pasuk and the nature of the prohibition prohibit a direct and personal coveting, and that coveting on behalf of someone else is not included in the prohibition. This would mean that any time an agent independently persuades someone to sell something they were not planning to sell, there is be no prohibition of Lo Tachmod, as long as the agent was not directed to do so by a person who wants the commodity at hand, and as long as the third party does not keep the object to themselves. This is another reason to argue that in a case of fundraising, when the person who is asking for the contribution does not receive the sum collected but is rather “passing it on” to the cause for which they are raising it, there is no problem of Lo Tachmod.

It is important to note that in general, even if something may not be technically prohibited under the prohibition of Lo Tachmod, it does not mean that the action is commendable. Chazal tell us in Pirkei Avot, “Who is rich? He who is happy with his share” (Avot 4:1), and go on to warn us that jealousy is one of the things that can “take the person out of this world” )see Gemara Sotah 9a which elaborates on the negative effects of jealousy). Although something may not be prohibited under the tenth commandment, which is indeed a severe one, if it involves jealousy, or another undesirable trait, it, too, should be avoided.

 Editor’s Note: Children often pressure each other to share food (“mooching”). There is genuine concern for violation of Lo Tachmod when engaging in such behavior.

[1] This essay is based on an article I published on this topic in the latest volume of Techumin (Hebrew vol. 33).

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