classical painting of moses and aaron standing on either side of the ten commandments in hebrew and transliteration
1674 painting of Moses and Aaron with the Ten Commandments by Aron de Chavez for the Sephardic Synagogue of London. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Curious Commandment

How can you command someone not to covet?

The Tenth Commandment teaches us not to covet. How can emotion be legislated?

Our tradition offers many answers. One points to the idea that you only covet that which you believe you can have. Whatever belongs to someone else should be considered strictly off limits, and if you think of it that way you will not covet it. More radically, one Hasidic response reminds us that in the Torah, they are not called the Ten Commandments, but Aseret HaDevarim — the Ten Sayings. The first, for example, “I am the Lord your God,” does not exactly fit the structure of the English “commandment.”

Therefore, Rabbi Yechiel of Zlachov teaches, “Thou shalt not covet” is not a commandment. It is a promise. If you live your life according to the other nine devarim, you will not want for anything. While others may be tormented by desires, you will feel grateful and blessed. You will not, as Shakespeare wrote, find yourself desiring “this man’s art and that man’s scope, with what I most enjoy contented least.” The Tenth Commandment, then, is the reward for observing the other nine — a little inner peace.

Rabbi David Wolpe’s musings are shared in My Jewish Learning’s Shabbat newsletter, Recharge, a weekly collection of readings to refresh your soul. Sign up to receive the newsletter.

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