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Encyclopedia Judaica:

Jewish Ethics: Table of Contents | Background of Jewish Ethics | Divorce

COVETOUSNESS, condemned and prohibited in the tenth commandment of the Decalogue (Ex. 20:14; Deut. 5:18), and throughout the Bible and Jewish ethical literature, particularly in the Book of Proverbs (e.g., 3:31, 14:30, etc.). Since envy may be defined as a state of mind which wishes to change existing relations, there is an inherent relationship between the condemnation of covetousness and the maintenance of established social and economic conditions. Greed is regarded as the root of all social injustice (see Micah 2:1 ff.; Hab. 2:9, etc.). The talmudic rabbis and medieval thinkers as well as modern scholars argue, for example, that the tenth commandment summarizes all the previous ones (Pes. 107aff.; Meg. 6; Naḥmanides' commentary on Ex. 20:14, etc.), because it is envy which leads to all the other sins. Avot 4:2 states that desire causes covetousness, which leads to robbery and tyranny (see also ibid., 2:11, 28; Mekh. to Ex. 20:14; BM 107, etc.). In the 20th century, too, Hermann *Cohen repeated that greed causes envy which, in turn, causes hate, that leads to war (Religion der Vernunft aus den Quellen des Judentums (1929), 522). Since there is no limit to the objects of greed, envy is never sated, but is rather self-aggravating (Prov. 27:20; Eccles. 5:9; Eccles. R. 1:34; Ibn Ezra's commentary on Ex. 20:14, etc.), which explains the ethical warning that covetousness leads to the self-destruction of the one prey to it (Prov. 28:22; Sanh. 106; Sot. 9a). The cure for limitless greed lies in contentment and humbleness (Avot 4:1: "Who is rich? He who delights in his share"). Jewish tradition acknowledges, however, that the final abolition of envy will occur only with the advent of the messianic, i.e., the totally just society (see M.Ḥ. Luzzatto , Mesillat Yesharim, ch. 11, based on Isa. 11:13).

[Steven S. Schwarzschild]

Sources:Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.