April 15, 2024
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What Is the Difference Between ‘Lo Tachmod’ and ‘Lo Titaveh’?

As we all know, the Ten Commandments are found in Parshat Yitro and again in Parshat VaEtchanan. But there are differences. One major difference is that in Parshat Yitro, the 10th commandment uses “lo tachmod” twice, while in Parshat VaEtchanan 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 “be-lev” (=with the heart), while “chimud” is “be-maaseh” (=with a deed). This distinction is adopted by 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 Leibovitz 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, but she often cites 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: “Chemdah refers to a physical experience, the actual impact of something that is pleasant to the eye, usually collocating with ‘eyes,’ e.g., machmad ayin, desire of the eye. Taavah refers to the person who expresses the desire even for something that is not present and that is not outwardly beautiful. It collocates with nefesh: taavat ha-nefesh, but never: chemdat ha-nefesh.”

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

As to Jacob, I have read 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 חמד signifies ‘snatch to one’s self’ and the passages that are adduced for it prove just the opposite.”

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

But the desire reflected in אוה is considerably different. “The difference is that the occasion for חמד is inspection, for אוה imagination…” The “body part” doing the אוה 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 אוה is often expressed in the hitpael, as in the 10th commandment. Why should that be the case? We have all looked at that 10th commandment for decades and wondered about חמד versus אוה, but we have forgotten to notice that אוה was in the hitpael: תתאוה. 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 “hitpallel” in my book “Roots and Rituals.”)

So what is the import of the hitpael of אוה? 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! אוה 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 חמד only to the wife, and אוה only to the other objects. While חמד is mentioned only for the wife, and אוה 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!

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!

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