Friday, June 02, 2023

As we all know, the Ten Commandments are found in Parshat Yitro and again in Parshat Va’etchanan. But there are differences. One major difference is that in Parshat Yitro, the tenth commandment uses “lo tachmod” twice, while in Parshat Va’etchanan we have “lo tachmod” regarding the wife, but then “lo titaveh” on the rest (house, field, etc.).

What precisely is the difference between “lo tachmod” and “lo titaveh”? Long ago, already in the Mechilta, there was a suggestion that “taavah” is “b’lev” (=with the heart), while “chimud” is “b’maaseh” (=with a deed). This distinction is adopted by the Rambam. See his discussion at Sefer HaMitzvot, Negative Precept 365: “This means, therefore, that once you let yourself covet in your mind a desirable object that you have seen in your friend’s house you have violated the precept of ‘lo titaveh.’ If your passion for the object becomes so intense that you take steps to acquire possession of it, pressing him to sell it and exchange it for something better or more valuable… you have violated both prohibitions.” See also Rambam, Hilchot Gezeilah ve-Aveidah 1:9-10.

Others view no deed required for “chimud” and view both prohibitions as equivalent. See, e.g., Sefer Mitzvot Gadol, Negative Precept 158.

But as Nehama Leibowitz writes (Yitro, section 6), it is difficult to accept the view that the two roots are synonymous: “Surely language has no absolute synonyms.” What then is the difference between the two roots?

Nehama then cites Malbim, Solomon Wertheimer and the scholar Benno Jacob and explains it all. (Benno Jacob was not an Orthodox Jew. It is interesting that she is often willing to quote him. On this issue, see Rabbi Hayyim Angel, “Peshat Isn’t so Simple,” p. 38.) Malbim, Wertheimer and Jacob all take the same approach.

First she quotes Malbim: “Ḥemdah refers to a physical experience, the actual impact of something that is pleasant to the eye, usually collocating with ‘eyes,’ e.g., maḥmad ayin, desire of the eye. Taavah refers to the person who expresses the desire even for something that is not present and is not outwardly beautiful… It collocates with nefesh, taavat ha-nefesh, but never ḥemdat ha-nefesh.”

Then she quotes Wertheimer: “Taavah refers to the human desire without benefit of visual contact. Ḥimud is the stimulation of desire by visual contact…”

As to Jacob, I have the article she was quoting from, so I will elaborate on his view and not limit myself to her brief quote. (The article is “The Decalogue,” JQR 14, 1923/24, pp. 141-87.)

Jacob first writes that it is not true that the God of Israel is indifferent toward sentiment or inclination, and judges only based on actions. He brings many verses that show that God judges individuals based on what is in their heart. He concludes: “Because the law is aware that action springs from the mind and receives from it direction, aim, character and value, therefore it addresses itself with its exhortations to the heart, so that it be one with God…[and] should not be misled and yield to bad impulses.”

Jacob then writes that “there is not a single passage in the Bible where Ḥ-M-D signifies ‘snatch to one’s self’ and the passages that are adduced for it prove just the opposite.”

Then he notes that Ḥ-M-D is quite often connected with R-A-H (to see) or the word ayin (eye), as in Gen. 2:9, Josh. 7:21, Isa. 53:2, I Kings 20:6, Ez. 24:16 and Lam. 2:4. In Ḥ-M-D, you are finding something beautiful and desiring it but the opinion arises first through inspection.

But the desire reflected in aleph-vav-heh is considerably different. “The difference is that the occasion for Ḥ-M-D is inspection, for A-V-H imagination…” The “body part” doing the A-V-H is usually the “nefesh,” not the eyes. (As to the precise meaning of “nefesh” in Tanach, that deserves a separate column!)

Then he makes the critical observation that A-V-H is often expressed in the hitpael, as in the tenth commandment. Why should that be the case? We have all looked at that tenth commandment for decades and wondered about Ḥ-M-D versus A-V-H, but we have forgotten to notice that A-V-H was in the hitpael: titaveh. A large percentage of the time in Tanach, perhaps a majority, the hitpael is a reflexive stem, meaning that it indicates that the person is doing something to himself. (But it has other functions as well, which I will not go into here. I have discussed the hitpael extensively in an article on “hitpalel” in my new book “Roots and Rituals.”)

So what is the import of the hitpael of A-V-H? Jacob explains that it means “to nourish in one’s heart the desire for something, through a vivid presentation in one’s phantasy…” So now we understand! A-V-H means you have a desire for something (not based on a visual inspection), and in the hitpael it means to actively build up your desire for the object! (See, e.g., Numbers 11:5: “zacharnu et ha-dagah asher nochal be-mitzrayim…” The previous verse had said “hitavu taavah.”)

Jacob also suggests that we should not be so technical and apply Ḥ-M-D only to the wife, and A-V-H only to the other objects. While Ḥ-M-D is mentioned only for the wife, and A-V-H is mentioned only for the other objects, an expansive view of parallelism can imply that we should treat both verbs as applying to all the objects.


Several decades ago, I heard the following homiletical dvar Torah. The Land of Israel is called “eretz chemdah” in the Birkat HaMazon, based on the use of the phrase at Jer. 3.19; Zech. 7:14 and Ps. 106:24. Let us assume that we would follow the Mechilta and the Rambam and conclude that one has not violated “lo tachmod” unless one has come into possession of the object. This means that the desire alone to live in Israel does not make it “eretz chemdah.” You actually have to live there in order to fulfill this term!

By Mitchell First

Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish scholar. He can be reached at [email protected] He sleeps much better now that he understands the distinction between the two verbs!

For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.

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