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The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia


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The inordinate desire to possess that to which one is not entitled, or that which belongs to another. Its prohibition forms the burden of the tenth commandment, "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, nor his man-servant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbor's " (Exodus 20:17 compare Deuteronomy 5:18 ). The Scriptures employ the following four terms as equivalents for "covetousness," differing in point of degree:

  1. "Ḳ in' ah" (from ), usually translated "envy." It signifies discontent with one's own possession because of the preferred possessions of others, as in Genesis 37:11 Isaiah 11:13 Psalm 37:1 , 73:3 Proverbs 3:31 , 33:17 .

  2. "Awwah" (from ). This is the equivalent of "longing," and connotes the wish for another's belongings, as in the passage, "Neither shalt thou desire thy neighbor's wife," etc. (Deuteronomy 5:18 compare Psalm 45:12 , 106:14 Proverbs 21:26 Ecclesiastes 6:2 ).

  3. "Ḥ emdah" (from ). This is rendered "covetousness," and indicates the undue craving for that to which one has no right, as in Exodus 20:17 Deuteronomy 5:18 , 7:25 Joshua 7:21 Micah 2:2 Proverbs 12:12 .

  4. "Beẓ a' " (from ). The meaning, "gain," has reference to the appropriation of the property of another. Compare the passages: "Provide . . . men of truth, hating covetousness (Exodus 18:21 ) "For from the least of them even unto the greatest of them every one is given to covetousness" (Jeremiah 6:13 , 8:10 see also Psalm 10:3 , 119:36 Proverbs 1:19 , 15:27 ).

Prophetic Denumciation.
The condemnation of covetousness is nowhere expressed more forcibly than, by implication, in the lament of Micah: "Wo to them that devise iniquity, and work evil upon their beds! When the morning is light they practise it, because it is in the power of their hand. And they covet fields, and take them by violence and houses, and take them away so they oppress a man and his house, even a man and his heritage" (Micah 2:1-2 compare Habakkuk 2:9 : "Wo to him that coveteth an evil covetousness").

Covetousness never succeeds in the attainment of the object desired. The covetous man is despised by God. "For the wicked boasteth of his heart's desire, and blesseth the covetous, whom the Lord abhorreth " (Psalm 10:3 ). "He who violates the commandment Thou shalt not covet, is regarded as if he had transgressed all ten commandments" (Pesiḳ . R. 21 ed. Friedmann, p. 107a).

Naḥ manides (1195-1270), in commenting on Exodus 20:17 , holds that "if man subdues his desire he will never harm his neighbor." Isaac Aboab (c. 1300) contends that the execution of the nine preceding commandments depends on the fulfilment of the tenth. Says Aboab: "He who does not covet will not depart from God, serve strange gods, violate the Sabbath and holidays, show lack of respect for parents, murder, commit adultery, steal, or swear falsely." "Covetousness is the root of all jealousies, lust, transgressions, and the violations of commandments" ("Menorat ha-Ma' or," Introduction to section i.).

Significance of Covetousness.
The consequences attending covetousness are not lost sight of by Judaism. Covetousness is an evidence of moral decline. "A sound heart is the life of the flesh but envy the rottenness of the bones" (Proverbs 14:30 ). "He that hath no rule over his own spirit is like a city that is broken down, and without walls" (Proverbs 25:28 ).

In some instances teachers have traced the direct effects of covetousness. The Pirḳ e Abot (iv:21) considers covetousness in its threefold manifestation the cause of man's removal from the world. "If you desire you will covet and if you covet you will tyrannize and rob" (Mek. to Exodus 20:17 ). Baḥ ya. ben Asher, in dilating on the tenth commandment, says: "If you covet, you cause quarrel, trouble, and divorce."

Nemesis of Covetousness.
A gross injury resulting to the covetous from his inordinate desire for that not rightfully belonging to him is the loss of the property with which he is blessed. In other words, covetousness is responsible for its own ruin. That covetousness is the cause of the individual's discontent and unhappiness is certainly true. Perhaps this idea underlies the following remark: "He who looks enviously on that which does not belong to him not only fails to obtain that which he seeks, but also loses that which he has" (Soṭ ah 9a). A proverbial saying to the same effect is the Talmudical aphorism, "Because the camel wanted horns his ears were cut off" (Sanh. 106a). Even though covetousness does not result in violence, the wish to possess another's property suffices to merit condemnation. "The wish to be able to do wrong is worse than the deed itself" (Yoma 29a).

Cure of Covetousness.
Covetousness is by no means unconquerable. Man can master this as well as all other passions. "Covetousness is a matter of the heart" (Solomon ben Melek, in Miklal Yofi to Deuteronomy 5:21 ). Special precaution should therefore be exercised by man not to permit covetousness to master him. This may be prevented by schooling oneself against it. "Remember that the object of your lust ï s unattainable, and your mind will be at case" (Abraham ibn Ezra to Exodus 20:17 ). Man should be satisfied with his lot. "Who is rich? He whorejoices in his portion" (Ab. 4:1). Man should vanquish his desire. Such victory is a mark of spiritual power. " Who is strong? He who subdues his evil inclination" (ib. ). "Keep thy heart with all diligence for out of it are the issues of life" (Proverbs 4:23 ).K. W. R.

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Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Covetousness'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. 1901.

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