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The Aseret Hadibrot include a commandment against stealing ( לא תגנב) and one against adultery, and then later include לא תחמד, which is usually translated "do not covet" (including by JPS). It then goes on to list the forbidden objects of this verb (your neighbor's house, wife, etc). My question is about what exactly this means -- what is it that we are forbidden to do?

I'm taking it as a given (please correct if I'm wrong) that it has to be different from the other commandments in some way -- each word in torah is there to teach us something and we should not expect redundancy. So, for example, if it's about action, it potentially conflicts with "do not steal" and "do not commit adultery", so those overlaps need to be resolved.

Rashi (and, according to the JPS Miqra'ot G'dolot, the Ramban) resolves the overlap with stealing by saying that the earlier commandment is about kidnapping and the later one about theft, based on position in the list. (The earlier one is listed with capital offenses; kidnapping is a capital offense too but theft is not.) Neither says anything about adultery -- how is not stealing your neighbor's wife different from not committing adultery?

I've heard some others say that the earlier commandments are about adultery and stealing (and that's consistent with גנב being about thievery in some later uses), and thus argue that the last is about intentions. While the mitzvot overwhelmingly are about actions, not thoughts, we do have a couple other thought/feeling-based ones (don't hold a grudge, love God with all your heart, love your fellow as yourself). Again according to the JPS Miqra'ot G'dolot, Hizkuni (whoever that is) says that "don't covet your neighbor's wife" is about neither mere thought nor adultery; rather, it means don't persuade her to divorce (which would make her available). If Hizkuni addresses stealing it's not reported here.

This Shabbat I heard a response to the "covet" (thought) understanding, in the name of Rabbi Joel Hoffman, arguing that it can't just mean "covet" or "desire" because that doesn't make sense when the word is used elsewhere. He points to Sh'mot 34:24, where Yisrael is being commanded in the pilgrimage festivals and God tells them that they needn't worry about leaving their property unguarded -- וְלֹא-יַחְמֹד אִישׁ אֶת-אַרְצְךָ, no man shall (verb) your land. Rabbi Hoffman argues that people can "covet" their land year-round, whether they're there or not, and in context this means they won't take it. But if we follow that reasoning, we still have the adultery problem.

Is לא תגנב about intentions or actions? If actions, which ones and how do we address the overlap with other parts of the Aseret Hadibrot?

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    Yet it also does not simply mean to "take," as that would render Deut. 7:25 redundant. Chazal understand לא תחמד to include coveting, scheming, and acting (along the lines of the Chizkuni), though the sin is not complete without an action (e.g. see Rambam's Sefer HaMitzvos L"T 265). However, cf. Deut. 5:17 that includes "וְלֹא תִתְאַוֶּה" as an independent prohibition to merely desire what belongs to another. | Chizkuni is the commentary on the Chumash by Chizkiya ben Manoach (13th century). – Fred Jan 3 '16 at 19:02
  • @Fred thanks! I hope you'll turn that into an answer. – Monica Cellio Jan 3 '16 at 19:11
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    Re Shmot 34:24, I've heard from my tabbi in high schooll as well as, IIRC, Rav Binyamin Kamenetzky (son of R Ya;akovKaminetzky, zt"l) that in this verse, "covet" really does mean "desire" or an idea of thought. Both rabbis explained that this is one of the great puzzling miracles that the Torah mentions. If all males are required to make pilgramage to Jerusalem, who will defend the borders? Thus, G-d is promising us the "ultimate". I.e. not only will no enemy attack, but they won't even desire your land. Taking over your land isn't a thought or concern to them! – DanF Jan 4 '16 at 2:25
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Hebrew Wikipedia on לא תחמוד says:

הלאו של לא תחמוד כולל את האיסור להוציא מן הזולת בתחבולות, ואף בתמורה כספית נדיבה, דבר השייך לו. התחבולות האסורות כוללות: הפצרה חוזרת ונישנית, לחץ חברתי וכמובן כח. העסקת המחשבות על תחבולות כאלו, אסורה גם היא, ואפילו עצם ההתאוות לנכסי הזולת או הקנאה בהם נאסר

My free translation: לא תחמוד includes the prohibition of getting by tricks or devices, even in exchange for generous financial recompense, something that belongs to another person . Tricks prohibited include: repeated urging, peer pressure, and exercise of power . Thinking about such schemes, is also prohibited , and even mere lust or jealousy of other assets is forbidden .

Rambam Hilchos Gezelah va'Avedah 1, 9 says

Anyone who covets a servant, a maidservant, a house or utensils that belong to a colleague, or any other article that he can purchase from him and pressures him with friends and requests until he agrees to sell it to him, violates a negative commandment,even though he pays much money for it, as Exodus 20:14 states: "Do not covet."

The violation of this commandment is not punished by lashes, because it does not involve a deed. One does not violate this commandment until one actually takes the article he covets, as reflected by Deuteronomy 7:25: "Do not covet the gold and silver on these statues and take it for yourself." Implied is that the Hebrew tachmod refers to coveting accompanied by a deed.

So to answer the question what is it that we are forbidden to do?

We are forbidden to want someone else's property to the extent that we exert undue pressure on them to sell or transfer it to us even for a price.

This is different to both stealing and adultery.

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