Universal ethical principles are relevant in all places and times. While the first four of the Ten Commandments1 are religious injunctions rather than universal ethical rules, the last six are sometimes considered universal.
In my last two blog posts I discussed commandments five through eight,2 and suggested that the following versions would be more comprehensively relevant:
- Parents must respect their children, and children must respect their parents. (To replace “Honor your father and your mother.”)
- You must not kill except to prevent someone from being killed. (To replace “You must not kill-without-a-legal-sanction.”)
- You must not break a vow to another person without formally dissolving it first. (To replace “You must not commit adultery-between-a-man-and a married-woman.”)
- You must not covertly take what rightfully belongs to another. (To replace “You must not steal.”)
What about commandments nine and ten, on false testimony and coveting? Are they morally relative, guides to good behavior only within Ancient Israelite culture? Are they moral absolutes? Or do they, too, need some revision to become universal ethical precepts?
The Ninth Commandment
Lo ta-aneh against your fellow [as] a witness to a falsehood. (Exodus/Shemot 20:13)
lo ta-aneh (ֺלֺא תַעֲנֶה) = you must not answer, testify; stoop.
Like the previous four commandments, the ninth is followed by more specific statutes in Mishpatim, last week’s Torah portion.
You must not take up an empty rumor. You shall not put in your hand with the wicked to become a malicious witness. (Exodus 23:1)
In other words, ethical witnesses in a court of law must testify only to what they have perceived with their own senses, discounting anything they have heard that might be a rumor, and ignoring what other witnesses say. (In Torah law, a person cannot be convicted without the testimony of at least two witnesses.3)
You must not follow rabim for evil, and lo ta-aneh on a legal dispute to turn aside [and] follow the majority4 to mislead. (Exodus 23:2)
Using that definition, this law specifies that a witness must not support popular sentiment against the defendant by making misleading statements.
Ibn Ezra pointed out that even a large number of witnesses can be wrong: “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil. If you see many people testifying concerning something that you know nothing of, do not say to yourself all of these people cannot be lying.”5
The book of Exodus continues by warning witnesses not to give misleading testimony in order to help out the poor.6
And you must not favor the powerless in his legal dispute. (Exodus 23:3)
Kindness to the poor is an important moral value in the Torah,7 but when someone is being tried for a crime, honesty is more important.
Is honesty always the best policy? Many cultures consider a “white lie” harmless and even ethical when it is used to avoid hurting someone’s feelings and has no negative consequences. A “white lie” might include rejecting an invitation by falsely saying you are busy that night, or complimenting someone on a new haircut that you actually think is ugly.
The ninth commandment only addresses giving honest testimony as a witness. But is honesty always the best, most ethical policy when you are testifying to legal authorities? What if you live in a society that punishes the crime of shoplifting with death or the loss of a hand, and you hold the conviction that this punishment is unethical? Should you tell a falsehood?
Your society would consider it ethical to report everything you saw the shoplifter do. But if your own belief is morally better, complete honesty as a witness cannot be a universal ethical precept.
However, the ninth commandment only says: You must not testify against your fellow as a witness to a falsehood. It does not require full disclosure in a morally difficult situation, but only prohibits lying when a falsehood could result in conviction and punishment of an innocent person.
This strict interpretation of the ninth commandment is relevant in all cultures. It could even be rephrased to cover situations outside of court, and remain a universal principle:
You must not speak falsehood in order to cause harm to another.
The Tenth Commandment
The other nine commandments all forbid or require certain actions. (Commandment five, “Honor your father and your mother”, requires certain actions rather than an internal feeling of honor or respect. See my post Yitro, Mishpatim, and Va-etchanan: Relative or Relevant? Part 1.) At first glance, the final commandment seems to be forbidding a feeling rather than an action.
Lo tachmod your fellow’s house; lo tachmod your fellow’s wife, or his male slave, or his female slave, or his bull, or his donkey, or anything that belongs to your fellow. (Exodus 20:14)
lo tachmod (לֺא תַחְמֺד) = you must not covet, crave, desire to possess. (From the root verb chamad, חָמַד = desired and tried to acquire, coveted, craved.)
Although many of the other commandments are elaborated by statutes given in the Torah portion Mishpatim, no laws in Mishpatim refer to coveting or craving.8
Another way to determine the meaning of the tenth commandment is to look at how the verb chamad is used elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible.9 In ten of the twenty occurrences of the verb chamad, it is connected with taking possession of the thing coveted. Therefore some commentary has interpreted the tenth commandment as prohibiting robbery, under the assumption that coveting inevitably leads to an attempt to steal by force.10
The repetition of the tenth commandment in the book of Deuteronomy is worded slightly differently, putting another man’s wife first, and using a synonym to prohibit an unhealthy desire for any other possessions:
And lo tachmod your fellow’s wife, and lo titaveh your fellow’s house, his field, or his male slave, or his female slave or his bull, or his donkey, or anything that belongs to your fellow. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 5:18)
lo titaveh (לֺא תִתְאַוֶּה) = you must not crave. (A form of the verb aveh, אוּה = craved, longed for.)
Why does Deuteronomy use the verb chamad only for coveting someone else’s wife, and the verb aveh for everything else? The Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael claims that craving leads to coveting, and coveting leads to robbing.11 Certainly the verb aveh indicates a visceral desire; out of the 27 times it appears in the Hebrew Bible, thirteen are about craving a particular food or drink.12
But why does the tenth commandment prohibit coveting rather than the action that follows it, the attempt to take by force? I suspect that the Torah is distinguishing between taking a fellow Israelite’s possessions when one is obsessed with desire, from taking foreigners’ possessions when one is authorized to do so in war. The Torah is full of commands to the Israelites to strip the Canaanites of all their possessions as they conquer the land. Other rules in the Torah discuss the correct ways of taking booty in battles with other countries. This is not the kind of robbing the Torah would include in the Ten Commandments.
Those who covet what belongs to others also harm themselves; envious obsession does not make for a happy life. But is it possible to legislate feelings?
Yes, according to 11th-century commentator Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra. He wrote that “just as a man does not desire to sleep with his mother, although she be beautiful, because he has been trained from his childhood to know that she is prohibited to him,” sensible people may notice that certain people or things owned by others are desirable, but they dismiss any covetous thoughts about possessions that are obviously off-limits.13
The remaining question is why the tenth commandment prohibits a feeling, when the other nine commandments prohibit or require an action.
While classic commentary claims that the tenth commandment really prohibits the act of robbery, I would argue that this final commandment caps the Decalogue by implying that obsessive thoughts about illegal deeds can lead to everything the Torah considers evil, from worshiping other gods (Commandment 1) to murder (6), adultery (7), and theft (8). Failing to honor one’s parents(5) could be the result of nursing resentment against them for their own bad deeds, and giving false testimony (9) could be the result of a consuming desire for popularity in the crowd that is accusing the defendant.
Therefore an appropriate update of the tenth commandment could be simply:
You must not covet anything that belongs to another person.
An alternative that encompasses a wider range of negative obsessions is:
You must not dwell on desires that would cause harm to others.
- The “Ten Commandments” is the popular English designation for the ten precepts God utters at Mount Sinai, listed in both Exodus 20:2-14 (in the Torah portion Yitro) and Deuteronomy 5:6-18 (in Va-etchanan).
- See Yitro, Mishpatim, and Va-etchanan: Relative or Relevant? Part 1 and Part 2.
- At least two witnesses are required for conviction in a legal case according to Deuteronomy 17:6, 19:15.
- Many English verstions of Exodus 23:2 including the standard JPS (Jewish Publication Society) translation, interpret the word rabim (רַבִּים) as the wealthy, even though its usual meaning is “the many”. But the Talmud, Rashi, and at least two careful modern translations interpret rabim as the many or the majority.4 Talmud Bavli, Bava Metzia 59b, Chullin 11a, Sanhedrin 2a. Rashi on 23:2. Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, p. 448. Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses, Schocken Books, New York, 1983, p. 383.
- 17th-century commentator Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra, translated in sefaria.org.
- Exodus 23:6-8 instructs judges not to bend the truth to help or harm the poor, as well as to reject bribes—presumably from the wealthy. Also see Leviticus 19:15.
- g. Exodus 22:20-26 in the Torah portion Mishpatim, which also reiterates the commandment against favoring the poor in a legal case (Exodus 23:3).
- The laws in Mishpatim on theft (Exodus 21:37-22:3 and 22:6-8) are more closely related to the eighth commandment, “You must not steal”, and are covered in my post Yitro, Mishpatim, and Va-etchanan: Relative or Relevant? Part 2.
- See Leonard Greenspoon, “Do Not Covet: Is It a Feeling or an Action?”, https://www.thetorah.com/article/do-not-covet-is-it-a-feeling-or-an-action.
- The proof text given in Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 20:14:1-3 (2nd-3rd century C.E.) and other early commentaries is Micah 2:1-2. This line of reasoning considers the eighth commandment, “You must not steal”, a prohibition against kidnapping a man who is not the property of anyone else. (E.g. Sanhedrin 86a).
- Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 20:14:1-3, from sefaria.org.
- Numbers 11:4, 11:34, and 34:10; Deuteronomy 12:20 and 14:26; 1 Samuel 2:16; 2 Samuel 23:15 and 1 Chronicles 11:17; Micah 7:1; Psalm 106:13-14; Proverbs 23:3 and 23:6.
- Translation of Ibn Ezra in sefaria.org.