Not to Desire What Belongs to Others

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

This past Shavuot, I had the good fortune to be hosted by Ner Yisrael in London and their rabbi, Eliezer Zobin. At one point, I was discussing the Aseret Ha-Dibberot, and found myself in a vigorous disagreement over asking a fellow Jew if s/he wishes to sell some item. I said we may ask once, but no more, if the Jew declares his/her disinterest; my interlocutor was offended by this limitation on economic activity.

Let’s see if the sources support my position [spoiler alert: if I turned out to be wrong, I’d likely have included that in my presentation of the story. Around the same time, I had an uncomfortable experience where friends mentioned a possession they had wanted and failed to buy, but then repeatedly approached the person who did buy it, eventually getting that person to sell it to them. There were some mitigating circumstances, but it felt like classic lo tahmod, another push to review these ideas].

Paying Through the Nose Is Not a Defense

Rambam has two prohibitions, 265 and 266. The first articulates the rule against thinking of strategies to buy an item belonging to someone else, the lo tahmod that appears in both presentations of the Aseret Ha-Dibberot (in Yitro and Va-Ethanan).

Aruch HaShulhan Hoshen Mishpat 359;10 includes a valuable caveat, the items here are all physical, only one person can own this item at any time. If the coveter seeks a skill or knowledge someone else has, and pressures him/her to teach it, that’s not lo tahmod.

Rambam quotes Mechilta, which likens lo tahmod to a verse about idolatry, we may not covet the gold and silver on idols, not take them for ourselves. Just as there, it is only by taking the gold the Jew transgresses, with lo tahmod, too, the violation comes when s/he acts to secure the coveted item.

Rambam explicitly includes giving the owner a great deal of money. Sefer Ha-Hinuch Mitzvah 38 speaks of coercion, but I think the offer of a great deal of money, or the psychological pressure of badgering, counts as well. Sefer Ha-Hinuch also focuses on how the thought to buy can lead to worse (as we will see below), reminding us lo tahmod starts with the thought, although the sin is not committed until an act occurs.

Minhat Hinuch Mitzvah 38 points out Tosafot in a few places thought paying frees a Jew of having committed hamas, having forcefully taken someone else’s property (where it is not theft). Rambam seems to accept the idea in terms of becoming pasul le-edut, invalid to testify in court because of one’s financial misdeeds, and Kessef Mishneh argues it is hamas, just that people assume it is not, and therefore the person does not qualify as financially amoral enough for us to disregard his testimony.

Aruch HaShulhan Hoshen Mishpat 34;5 is so sure Kessef Mishneh is correct, he says people of his time violate lo tahmod often, out of the assumption it only matters if they take an item without paying. Which is untrue, but saves them from witness invalidation.

It’s About the Pressure

Minhat Hinuch also noted a question raised by Maggid Mishneh, whose answer focuses on the pressure applied by the coveter. He brought up a Talmudic principle, any act the Torah prohibited does not take effect, even if one does it anyway (kol milta de-amar Rahmana lo ta’avid, i avid, lo mehanei).

Assuming we accept the idea (Rava and Abbaye debate it, and halachah generally follows Rava, who held it was lo mehanei, ineffective), if the Torah prohibited buying the item, the purchase should be ineffective. Minhat Hinuch dislikes Maggid Mishneh’s explanation, instead prefers the idea the prohibition would not be fixed by reversing the sale, because the prohibition lay in acting out the emotions that led to engineering the sale. We only say lo mehanei, the act is ineffective, where it will remove the sin from the world, but here, the pressure will have been brought to bear no matter what.

In addition, the seller might now sincerely be happy with it (if I overpaid for the Feberge egg I just had to have, the seller may now be happy, wrong as it was for me to offer the overpayment), and there is no reason to punish him/her. So the sale stays, and lo tahmod remains on the buyer’s religious accounts.

Aruch HaShulhan Hoshen Mishpat 359;8-9 seems to disagree, seems to think lo tahmod is only about the actions, such as convincing the owner’s friends or relatives to pressure him/her to sell it. He says not thinking about buying it is a middat hasidut, laudatory but not required; lo tit’aveh is about not coveting it at all.

Only Towards Jews

Sefer Ha-Hinuch Mitzvah 38 reminds us the Torah speaks always of re’echa in this commandment, limiting these prohibitions to fellow Jews. With non-Jews, we certainly cannot let our thoughts take us to stealing or murder (as we will see), but wanting what they have, trying to convince them to sell it to us, is not disallowed.

He almost definitely does not mean that as broadly as it sounds. First, in Mitzvah 416, he says the Torah prohibited coveting to avoid theft, a too-likely outcome of a frustrated desire. Were we fully allowed to covet a non-Jew’s possessions, he would be implying the Torah had no problem with Jews stealing from non-Jews, clearly untrue.

More explicitly, he is sure non-Jews themselves are not allowed to covet, an idea Minhat Hinuch praises, but thinks Sefer Ha-Hinuch came up with on his own. It is not one of the seven Noahide laws, he concedes, except the Noahide laws do include a ban on stealing, and they are overall principles, obligating non-Jews in the specific rule as well as all that leads to it, such as coveting. [I believe this, too, is a novel idea, non-Jews are supposed to avoid the whole area of a Noahide law.]

The Torah went into greater detail for Jews, made specific mitzvot of what non-Jews also must avoid, to increase Jews’ opportunities for merits. Jews fulfill a commandment every time we stop ourselves from coveting, or wrangling a sale, where non-Jews have just avoided violating their rule against stealing.

Lashes and the Focus of the Prohibition

Sefer Ha-Hinuch notes the lack of malkot, lashes, where a prohibition defined by an action usually incurs such lashes. Here, he says, it is a lav ha-nitan le-hishavon, a transgression rectifiable by returning the improperly gotten gain.

Minhat Hinuch lets us in on a bit of sleight of hand here. While Sefer Ha-Hinuch generally follows Rambam, Rambam had said there were no lashes because it is a lav she-ein bo ma’aseh, has no action attached to it. This fits what we have seen before, Rambam thinks the prohibition fully includes the thoughts leading up to the buy.

Sefer Ha-Hinuch uses Ra’avad’s explanation (a repayable prohibition) instead, because he differs from Rambam on the definition of a prohibition without action. The reason matters, though, because if it is a matter of being repayable, it would seem to obligate the lo tahmod buyer to return the item. Of course, as we have said, by this point the seller might reject the idea. Perhaps the possibility to offer to return it is enough to avoid the lashes.

The explanation also affects the issue of coveting another’s wife. Suppose a man covets her and approaches the husband cleverly or effectively enough to bring about a divorce [Iago without all the death], then marries her. For Ra’avad—Minhat Hinuch says—it might not be considered nitan le-hishavon, and then the new husband might violate the Torah every time he stays married to her.

Don’t Even Think About It

The second lav, Prohibition 266, part of the Dibberot only in our parsha, tells us not to put our thoughts towards desiring what our fellow Jew has. Because thoughts tend to lead to actions, the Torah is telling us not to allow thoughts themselves to flourish. Rambam stresses, again based on Mechilta, lo tahmod is violated with the purchase, lo tit’aveh with the thought and desire.

Except he expands lo tahmod beyond the successful purchase. If someone sees and likes an item in another Jew’s possession, allows him/herself to desire it to the point of seeking to secure it, and then repeatedly or continuously asks the owner, pressures him/her until it is sold or traded—even if the owner makes out like a bandit, comes away with much greater value—the buyer has violated lo tahmod.

Sefer Ha-Hinuch Mitzvah 416 knows of people who are sure our emotions and desires just happen to us, are uncontrollable, and it has to be wrong of the Torah to regulate them. Only evil sinful people say such things, he says (he calls them tipshim, fools or idiots, a partial defense, because it’s not solely their evil that leads them to this mistake).

People can in fact rein in their emotions and desires, he [and Torah Judaism] is sure, and this and other commandments tell us how to shape ourselves and what we want in the ways Hashem commanded/wants/values.

[A teacher once told me that current psychological research says that the first thirty seconds of anger might be beyond our control, but after that we choose whether to wallow in it, set it aside, or have some other reaction. As we choose our reactions to events in our lives, we also set patterns, such that what once infuriated us—or, for our example, lured us to want to buy it—could lose all interest. Then we would have an easier time fulfilling lo tahmod.]

The Chain of Thoughts and Actions

Rambam closes with the warning matters could go a step further if the original owner stays steadfast in his/her refusal to sell. The “buyer” will have violated lo tit’aveh by wanting the item, lo tahmod by pressuring the owner to sell (it doesn’t seem to require a complete sale, then), and in some cases will get frenzied enough to just take it.

As when Ahav, I Melachim 21, decided he had to have Navot’s field, and Navot eventually lost his life. Desire leads to action, and failed action can fuel misdeeds.

Back to the claim I made in London: I was trying to be lenient, given that in our economy, people sell their possessions more often and for a wider range of reasons than in the Gemara’s and Rambam’s time. In such a world, I suggested it was reasonable to ask a person one time, are you by any chance interested in selling that? If the answer is no, the thought process must end, let alone the conversation.

Persistently wanting what belongs to a fellow Jew: lo tit’aveh. Deciding one must have what belongs to a fellow Jew, offering him/her lots of money, and then buying the property/item: lo tahmod.

About Gidon Rothstein

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