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Lo Tachmod vs. Lo Titaveh

In Parashat Va’Etchanan, Deuteronomy 5:18, we have Moshe’s rehashing of the tenth of the Aseret HaDibrot, the 10 Commandments. Commonly known to us as “Do not covet”, the actual text (translated by JPS, 2006) reads, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. Likewise, none of you shall crave your neighbor’s house, or field, or male or female slave, or ox, or ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” The verb used for “covet” is tachmod, the verb used for “crave” is titaveh. Why the different verbs? The original Aseret HaDibrot, in Exodus, read, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house: you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox or ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” All verbs here are “covet”, tachmod. In addition to the difference in verbs, the two sets of commandments also differ in that in Moshe’s retelling there is a distinction made between the neighbor’s wife and his possessions, both by placing the wife first, outside of the general category of “house”, and by using a different verb for it. My question is why? Why the different verbs? Why the distinction between wife and possessions?

Many explanations have been given over the years for the difference between lo tachmod and lo titaveh, probably most famously by Maimonides. I am most convinced by the position backed by scholar Benno Jacob, Nehama Leibowitz, and Rabbi Dovid Tzvi Hoffman, among others. They bring proof that, throughout Tanakh, tachmod refers to a desire triggered by seeing. Even more basically, it refers to desiring something which one has encountered. Something has been placed before you; it looks good; you want it. Titaveh and words based on its root generally refer to a craving for something out of reach, something unseen. It is not based on sensory experience; one does not have a taava because something looks good, but rather because something sounds good. With tachmod, you only realize you’re missing something once you see it. With tavah, you somehow feel it in your heart. As a quick example, Rashi points to Genesis 2:9, which uses tachmod to refer to trees which are nice to look at and good for eating which God plants in Gan Eden. Humans have a relatively simple relationship with the fruit. Desire for it does not build up in their psyche. They simply see the fruit, it looks good, and so they eat it, and it’s satisfactory and healthy. Compare this to the tava in Bamidbar for meat, which is exactly what the Israelites do not have and are craving. It builds in their psyche. To see the prooftexts for yourself, see this article: Another difference between the two verbs in Moshe’s retelling is that titaveh is in a verb form normally used for reflexive verbs. This supports the idea that one builds a tava inside themself, whereas a tachmod is more something that strikes a person when they see something attractive.

Now, let us connect this distinction we made, that of the verbs, to the actual commandments. One could argue that lo tachmod means one cannot want (or plan/try to get–that’s more what the halacha is) those things of his neighbor which he has seen and desired, those things that look good to him. In this case, it seems that the desire is directed towards the objects. You want to have what looks good to you, even if it belongs to your neighbor. This desire is not necessarily a reflection of the way one thinks about oneself, it could be a simple attraction and attempt to obtain an object. Lo titaveh could be a prohibition against those things of his neighbor which he has not seen, but nevertheless wants. He harbors this desire for his neighbor’s possession in his heart, not because he has seen them, that they are so attractive, but simply because he does not have them. Simply knowing that one’s neighbor has a house or a field or a slave or a donkey might create a craving in one’s heart to own that house or that field or that slave or that donkey. In this case, the desire is not about the object, but a reflection of one’s dissatisfaction with their material lot. It doesn’t matter what the object is like, you just want to own what your neighbor owns. If you have this desire, it means you are unsatisfied with your very self, with the very identity you inhabit (credit Aleph Beta on that idea). This is, in a way, an affront to God. His Providence is not sufficient for you, you are in effect saying. What you have been given is not enough. You should have been given more. It seems that lo tachmod serves as a check on the human impulse to take whatever one pleases. There are things that are off limits to you, it is saying, and you have to respect that. Recognize your lack of power and ownership and God’s total power and ownership by not trying to obtain whatever catches your fancy but belongs to others. It seems that lo titaveh serves to prevent people from being unsatisfied. Don’t dwell on and desire what you don’t have. What you do have has been granted to you by God, and you should be satisfied and thankful for that.

Now we come to the point when we try to answer our original question: What’s the point? Why the different verbs for wife and possessions, and why now? To answer this question, we must think about the difference between a man’s wife and his property. In order to simplify the discussion, let us use a man’s house as the archetype for all his property. Rav Binyamin Tabory, in his The Weekly Mitzvah shiur on Parashat Yitro (where the OG Aseret HaDibrot are found), points out that a man owns his house, whereas he does not own his wife. In the man-house relationship, the man has complete legal rights over the house. In the man-wife relationship, the wife has rights. Whereas the man legally owns his house, he is legally in a union with his wife. Thus, a man can transfer ownership of his house as he wills it, because he has complete legal agency over it. In contradistinction, a man can only end the legal union between himself and his wife (divorce), but cannot transfer ownership of her, as she is her own legal agent and the relationship is not one of owner-object. Ownership means you have rights. Marriage means you have responsibilities.

What does the fruit represent? It represents two things. First, it represents that which is accessible but forbidden. The fruit is right there, it is pleasing to the eye, tempting. Secondly, it represents what is inaccessible. Eating the fruit gives mankind the powers God did not allot to it. There is a desire within Eve for that which she does not have, does not know, and those are the powers of distinction and reasoning and consciousness which God has. On the one hand, the fruit looks good to Eve, but she can’t have it because she can’t have whatever she wants, she can’t have it because God wants her to follow his commands – Lo Tachmod. On the other hand, the fruit is tempting to Eve because it promises a knowledge which she does not have, but she can’t eat it because God doesn’t want her to have that knowledge – Lo Titaveh. Eve is tempted to eat the fruit because it is appealing to her. Or: Eve is tempted to eat the fruit because she wants what she doesn’t have. Let us examine Genesis 3:6.

וַתֵּ֣רֶא הָֽאִשָּׁ֡ה כִּ֣י טוֹב֩ הָעֵ֨ץ לְמַאֲכָ֜ל וְכִ֧י תַֽאֲוָה־ה֣וּא לָעֵינַ֗יִם וְנֶחְמָ֤ד הָעֵץ֙ לְהַשְׂכִּ֔יל וַתִּקַּ֥ח מִפִּרְי֖וֹ וַתֹּאכַ֑ל וַתִּתֵּ֧ן גַּם־לְאִישָׁ֛הּ עִמָּ֖הּ וַיֹּאכַֽל׃

When the woman saw that the tree was good for eating and a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable as a source of wisdom, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave some to her husband, and he ate.

You will notice that “delight” is the translation for taavah, and that “desirable” is the translation for nechmad, from the same root as tachmod. Let us try to understand what taava and nechmad are doing here, and perhaps that can help us understand the real nature of the two words and allow us to answer our original question, linking the different concepts of the words with the distinction between wife and property. Firstly, notice that the wording does not say that the woman desired “the eyes.” She “saw”, or realized, that the tree was tava to the eyes, translated here as delight. What does this mean? Rashi says it corresponds to the snake’s promise that eating the fruit would cause “your eyes [to] be opened.” Perhaps it means that Eve realized that she had a desire to see in a way that she did not at the time. She did not know exactly what it would be like, as she did not possess that sense, but she still craved it – taavah. Then we have the tree being nechmad as a source of wisdom. Rashi says that this corresponds to the snake’s promise of knowledge of good and evil. That sounds good to the woman. Here is a result which she knows will occur, which she can, in effect, “see.” She sees the idea of being able to distinguish between good and bad, instead of having to rely on God, who, at the time, was the only one with such power, and she desires that ability - tachmod. It’s not just God that will be able to tell you which trees are good and bad for eating; by making the choice to eat the fruit, you will have that ability too. That sounds good, says Eve, I want that power. The effect was revealed to Eve and seemed good. The choice to eat the fruit represents making decisions for oneself, being one’s own moral agent, being able to choose what looks good, but it also represents desiring what one does not have. Wisdom is good. I like it. I want it. But also: I don’t have vision. I want it.

Now, here’s where it gets interesting. What results from Eve’s decision? As a result of the “opening of the eyes”, which was associated with taavah, Adam and Eve realize they are naked and clothe themselves. This leads to more taavah, as now that humans are wearing clothing, they will have a desire to see what is hidden under that clothing, not because they can see it and it looks good, but precisely because they cannot see it but crave to. Eating the fruit truly did create taavah laynayim. As a result of “knowing good and bad”, God banishes humans from Eden, lest they take from the Tree of Life and become immortal. The Tree of Life, which had always been visible to humans but which they didn’t desire, would now become desirable, as they could think about and “see” the appealing immortality which it promised, and choose to take from it. Eve said, that looks good, give it to me, when it came to the Tree of Knowledge. Now she might do the same for the Tree of Life, because of that knowledge. Once good and bad have been revealed to humans’ minds, they crave everything that they judge to be good. Now, humans are outside the garden and have to work the soil for their food. Before, the tree wasn’t immediately good to the eye. Now that humans have another way of sensing good and bad though, through their mind, the Tree of Life has become desirable.

This in turn leads to something interesting. We had previously thought of the commandment lo tachmod eishet reiecha to be basically saying that you desire the wife because she is appealing to you. But, post-Eden, what is the primary exclusive right a husband has in a marriage: to be able to see the woman naked. So a neighbor never really knows what his neighbor’s wife is like, but nevertheless she appeals to him. With property, though, one neighbor can quite easily see and reason how comfortable his neighbor’s house is, how productive his servants and animals are, etc. He knows exactly what his neighbor’s property is like, but nevertheless it is something which he desires for reasons apart from the actual appeal of the property, but instead for the fact that he doesn’t own it. What is going on? The answer is back in Eden. It was seemingly counterintuitive for taavah to match with eyes when it is something that is craved but unseen, while tachmod, something which is appealing to the eye, was matched with wisdom. Our answer, though, was that the taavah was to see things in a new way. A man can plainly see his neighbor’s property, just the same as his neighbor sees his own property, but he wants to see it in a new way. The owner looks at his property with different eyes than the neighbor. The neighbor wants to look at the property through an owner’s perspective, a perspective he doesn’t have but desires. He craves to know what it is like to look at his house and know that it is his, he imagines it, it builds in his psyche. Tachmod was to be able to appreciate good and bad on a level deeper than just the visual sense. It is to be able to see with one’s mind what is good and bad, to judge, to think about the effects of something. Yes, a man can see his neighbor’s wife and be physically attracted to her, but so can everybody else, and it’s really something one is not in control of. The neighbor who tachmods is the neighbor who thinks about the effects of having his neighbor’s wife as his own. He is not simply attracted; he is using his mind, his wisdom, his judgement, to think about how we would like to have her as a wife. This jives well with the idea that tachmod, halachically, refers to a more advanced stage of thinking about owning what belongs to your neighbors. One can’t help but be attracted to a beautiful woman, but one can prevent oneself from actively considering how good it would be to have her as a wife. One can help oneself from judging her merits, as if you judge something as desirable and good, you will naturally take it (see Maimonides’ idea that tachmod must entail an attempt and attainment). With the neighbor’s property, one shouldn’t dwell on the idea of owning it, of being able to look at it and say that “it is mine.”

Last thing: why now? Why does Moses add this in his retelling? The Israelites are about to enter the Promised Land and settle it. Property will be divided unevenly, that’s just the way the cookie crumbles. Thus, Moses “adds” a prohibition. Not only is it forbidden to consider practically, with one’s judgement, how good it would be to be married to your neighbor’s wife and own your neighbor’s property and if you want to take it, but it is also forbidden to build up a fantasy of being able to look at one’s neighbor’s property with an owner’s eyes. However, as a result of clothing which came as a result of taava in Eden, it is human nature that one looks at his neighbor’s wife and has a taava to wonder what she looks like naked. So taava, don’t even dwell on it, tachmod, don’t consider it. Why? Because if everybody has a taava for their neighbor’s land, your gonna have a lot of strife and legal bullying and buying and land transfership and theft.

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