4-5769: Mitzvah N-40

Talmidav Shel Aharon
4-5769: Mitzvah N-40
November 20, 2008

Negative Mitzvah 40 – This is a negative commandment: Do not covet anything belonging to another person.

Hafetz Hayim: for Scripture says, “You shall not covet etc.” (Ex. 20:14) Now coveting denotes that a person invests effort to put his thought into action; he sends many friends to the fellow, and importunes him, until he takes it [the object of desire] from him. Even if he has given him a great price for it, he thus violates the commandment. This often occurs when a son-in-law pressures his father-in-law before the wedding that he should give him this or that object, which they did not stipulate when the t’naiim were written. Even if his father-in-law fulfills his demand, the son-in-law nevertheless violates this prohibition. It is in force everywhere and at all times for both men and women.

This commandment, another of the famous Ten Commandments, is one that is important for the sake of Peace. It is very hard for a legal system to lead people to do more than what the law allows. This is a prime example of the difference between a pure legal system and Jewish Law. Judaism is not only about the law, but about morality as well. There is a whole category of laws relating to bringing peace between two people, between husband and wife, between brothers, between friends and between business partners. It is not enough to do what is right, we have to do things that will not bring about strife with someone else.
Coveting has the capacity to create strife. When we desire what someone else has, so much that we will do almost anything to secure it, there is a big problem. I have seen people go on a campaign to get what they want from someone else. It does not matter if the person who is the point of this campaign finally gives in. The feelings of hurt and resentment remain.
What is coveting and what is not? It is not coveting if the person has the item for sale and you are negotiating the price. It is not coveting if all agree that this object is payment for some service you are providing. It is not coveting if you ask your neighbor to let you know when she is ready to sell an item as long as you don’t ask, “Are you selling it yet?” It is coveting when you want what belongs to someone else, no matter if it is an object or even a person. You can’t covet a person’s wife, imploring him to divorce her, convincing him that she is no good, and doing all this so you can have her. It applies to movable objects and even real estate. (see the story of King Ahab of Israel and Nabot’s vineyard in the Book of Kings).

I have to admit, when I first saw the Hafetz Hayim’s example of the son-in-law who desires something that belongs to his father-in-law, I first wondered if the Hafetz Hayim was having trouble with his own son-in-law! Weddings today are not done in quite the same way so some explanation is needed. Weddings for centuries in Judaism took over a year to complete. The couple would decide to marry and their families would then get together for a party and to set up the terms of the wedding. They decided at that time who would pay for the different parts of the wedding ceremony, and what each of the families would provide for the couple. The bride’s family might have to bring bedding, pillows and household items; the groom’s family might provide a house, animals, tools and even a job/support for the groom. These terms were spelled out in “te’naiim” a contract that specified when all the terms had to be completed, usually at the same time the families gathered again for the wedding. If one family did not fulfill their obligations, the wedding could be cancelled. To seal the “t’naiim” (agreement) the two families (usually the two mothers) would together, break a plate.
In our case, the son-in-law wants something from his father-in-law that is not part of the t’naiim. This demand by the groom is a problem because he is indirectly threatening that he may decide not to marry the daughter if the man does not give in to his demands. It puts the bride’s father in a very difficult position and even if he gives in to the demand, there is now resentment and anger that may, eventually, disrupt the marriage itself as one family is now angry at the other. (It is assumed that if the son asked his own parents for an object, they would give it to him out of family love.)
The idea here is to be thankful for what we have, rather than envy what someone else has.

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